Sexuality is one of the most intrinsic parts of our identities. Navigating changes of the body, new desires (or the lack thereof), healthy relationships, and potentially, sex and relationships, is hard for anyone. When a young person has no one to talk to? It’s nearly impossible.
All across the United States, abstinence-only sex education is being preached with a dash of religious bias in classrooms. As a high school senior, I know first-hand what abstinence-only and abstinence-based curricula looks like. It ain’t pretty. In my sex ed, we heard stories of terrifying STIs that mimicked that of the bubonic plague, purity, and waiting until marriage. If you didn’t wait, you were — of course — impure and disgusting. I didn’t receive this sex education until nearly age fourteen, a clear year after experiencing a rape, which left me with no choice in whether or not to ‘wait.’
My class didn’t give me the words, ‘sexual assault,’ ‘not my fault,’ or ‘acquaintance rape.’
Instead it gave me ‘impure,’ ‘immoral,’ ‘disgusting,’ and ‘at fault.’
Sadly, my story is not the anomaly. Across my city, Sin City, and across the country, we hear nightmares. Nightmares of young girls being separated from the boys and being told there are no rape laws, a sex ed class watching The Biggest Loser for an entire semester and slut-shaming of all the girls who they claimed were ‘tainted.’ Teachers screaming “religion!” when questions of abortion arise, refusing to even utter ‘LGBTQ’ while shaming any queer student that enters the doors. These horror stories crowd our experiences of sexual health education.
Not all students have the luck and ability to sit at home and unpack these conversations with trusted adults or parents. Teachers are our confidantes, our guides, and our instructors. We look to them for truth, fact, and compassion.
In our world, where we see 1 in 2 sexually active young people contracting an STI by the age of 25, where we see rape and sexual assault happening at astounding rates, where LGB students attempt suicide at rates seven times higher than their straight counterparts, we need more than curricula designed to shame us, degrade us, and humiliate us. That’s why my fellow youth activists and I have been working to improve sex education in Las Vegas. We’ve testified before the school board, held protests, educated the public, and fought back even in the face of personal attacks. The issue is that important to me and to the students of Las Vegas.
The sex education I envision would not leave us feeling empty. Our sexual health education would include instruction on all parts of ourselves, not just the uterus, the testes, and the importance of a wedding ring. I would have received education on healthy relationships, consent, sexual assault and rape before it was too late. My friends would have known that there are rape laws and ways to press charges. I wouldn’t have received a resounding ‘no’ when asking the teacher if it’s okay to like boys and girls, and no LGBTQ student would feel alienated and wrong. Young girls would feel validated in any of their decisions, receiving reaffirming education teaching them of their options should they choose to engage in sexual activity, leaving all the shame at the door. Our teachers would be trained and proficient in the material they were instructing on.
No one would feel a stranger to the conversations, because the conversation would be strange to no one. Sexuality would be a comfortable topic, with the teacher doing just that — teaching and guiding us to make healthy decisions. Our identity formation would no longer be shots in the dark, but educated experiences that allowed us to make healthy, responsible decisions about our own lives. We need instruction that is unbiased, tolerant, and embracing of all regardless of who they are. We’ll keep fighting for this vision, for students in Las Vegas and across the United States.
Caityln Caruso shared this story as an activist with Advocates for Youth’s Young Women of Color Leadership Council.