If Public Schools Won’t Teach Sex Ed, We’ll Have To Do It Ourselves

In the absence of institutional reform, there’s hope for comprehensive sex education.

When I was 16 years old, I had a pregnancy scare. I’m not sure that’s the correct term. Let’s call it a “pregnancy scare misconception.” Without having unprotected, penetrative sex, there was no fathomable way I could have been pregnant. It would have been a betrayal of science. It’s not like I believed I was a descendent of the Virgin Mary; I just didn’t know how anything worked in that realm, despite being sexually involved with a long-term boyfriend.

If you grew up in a red state, you can probably relate. My Texas sex education throughout middle and early high school was extreme: extremely nonexistent. Extremely non-educational. Extremely life-altering, for the unlucky.

It’s only now, in my early twenties, that I’m waking up and acknowledging the damage that inadequate sex education has caused me, largely because I’ve discovered artists who are working to lift shame and stigma and heal our perception of female sexuality. It wasn’t until last year that I began to seriously focus on sex education in my writing as an issue, when I started connecting the dots between rape culture and the ways in which our education system envelops us in shame about our bodies. I don’t want today’s teens to have to wait that long — but if anything, public school sex education is about to get worse. How did we get here? And how do we mitigate the damage?

My freshman year of high school, an abstinence speaker compared my virginity to a fragile, delicate thing, like a gift wrapped in paper. There was still hope, he said, if I had already unwrapped my present; I could always re-wrap it by giving up sex entirely. But if I didn’t, I’d probably end up with genital warts. (All roads lead to genital warts in abstinence-only programs. Somewhere buried deep in the minds of most students who grew up in these programs is a repressed memory of passing around a face-down photograph around a giggling classroom, with the occasional gasp as someone dared to flip the photograph to reveal “diseased” genitalia.)

We didn’t get many details about how, exactly, STIs were transmitted or pregnancy came about, but there was plenty of pressure to remain untouched, or else.

When I missed my period at 16, I jumped to the conclusion that maybe, somehow, my then-boyfriend’s semen was magic and could survive exposure to air. Little flying warriors, those sperm! I remember coming home from school to discover that my mother had seen my panicked online messages and was waiting for me with a pregnancy test. I remember the shameful feeling of peeing with the door open, fumbling for an explanation, trying to say it wasn’t possible…I don’t think? My poor mom must have thought I was either a liar or a fool.

Of course, the test was negative.

Schools omit information or flat-out lie to teenage students, playing Russian roulette with their sexual health and reproductive freedom.

I’m not ashamed to tell this story now because I’ve learned (and unlearned) a lot about sexual health and sexuality in the past seven years, and all signs point me back to the negligence of the Texas public school system’s sex education (or lack thereof). The damaging dual forces at play for teenagers — sex ed that keeps them in the dark about the reality of sex, and media that overstimulates them with an airbrushed appeal of it — leaves them unprepared for the emotional and physical considerations of an intimate and common part of growing up.

I was lucky. I slipped through the cracks of abstinence-only sex education relatively unscathed. I was able to see it as a joke for years. And it is a joke, at first glance. But think about it: Schools omitting information or flat-out lying to teenage students, playing Russian roulette with their sexual health and reproductive freedom? The punchline isn’t as funny when you end up in a life-altering situation that could have been avoided if you had been provided with the right information and support.

I have a sister (on the verge of 16) currently attending the same Texas high school I did, and she says the closest she’s come to sex ed is learning about menstruation. The contrast between her experience and mine represents the status quo of abstinence-only education; it’s inconsistent, but consistently terrible.

The Resistance is going to have to include sex ed.

With Secretary Betsy DeVos leading the Education Department, there’s little hope of the status quo changing. In 2001, DeVos reflected on her vision for American schools: “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Translation: I have no intention to even pretend to separate church and state. DeVos’ evangelical background guarantees she’ll take a sex-negative, abstinence-only approach to public school sex education.

Given the potential consequences, the Resistance is going to have to include sex ed.

Comprehensive sex education is at the root of important issues like sexual assault prevention and reproductive justice, and yet the nation’s current landscape of inaccurate and insufficient curriculum seems like a desolate place we’ve given up on.

Religiously-motivated conservatives have been funding abstinence-only-until-marriage programs since Ronald Reagan first introduced them in the early 1980s, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

The Adolescent Family Life Act in 1981, established to promote “chastity” and “self-discipline,” was “quietly signed into law” without hearings or floor votes in Congress.

Since then, research has time and time again confirmed the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only programs on teenage pregnancy and STI rates. And there’s no way to quantify the effect that these programs, which champion “purity” and equate virginity with personal value, have on self-worth. Canyon Independent School District (in Northwest Texas) was heavily criticized in 2013 when a parent got their hands on the “Reality Check” curriculum being used to convey the importance of preserving virginity: “Encourage students to stay like a new toothbrush, wrapped up and unused. People want to marry a virgin, just like they want a virgin toothbrush or stick of gum.” Girls who have had sex, in other words, are “used” and unhygienic. Some states, like Arizona and Oklahoma, also serve information about HIV with a side order of blatant homophobia.

And yet, despite being demonstrably ineffective and psychologically harmful, abstinence-only education is rampant in the United States. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health in the U.S. and globally, only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, while 26 states require that abstinence is stressed.

No one’s going to do us any favors when it comes to ensuring public health in general or sex ed in particular.

The trend is obvious: On a federal and local level, Republican administrations have put up barriers to empowering U.S. teenagers to make conscious, empowered sexual health decisions. They’ve wreaked havoc on public health and well-being. In these abstinence-first states, any teenager trying to make smart choices about sex is met with feelings of guilt and shame, as well as barriers to access for birth control. Those questioning their sexuality feel like they don’t exist. Survivors of rape feel dirty and unwanted because they’ve been told the most important thing about them is that they’re untouched.

For the next four years and beyond, no one’s going to do us any favors when it comes to ensuring public health in general, or sex ed in particular. The religious conservatives who put this disastrous system into effect are now running the show.

But there’s hope. Under DeVos and cronies, sex ed in schools is likely to suffer — but sex ed outside of schools can thrive. We — as parents and older siblings of teenagers, as artists and new media gatekeepers — can be the light in the cracked system, working independently of it while still fighting for comprehensive sex education within schools. We have control, if we’re willing to make the effort. Taking sex ed into our own hands is an imperative now more than ever.

Independent educational resources for sex education need to offer a package deal: In addition to fact-based, stigma-free information about birth control and STIs, good sex ed allows for honest, open discussion of consent and sexuality.

Taking sex ed into our own hands is an imperative now more than ever.

Creative ways in which the real stories and experiences of teenagers are being centered and respected do exist, such as The Art Effect All Girl Theatre Company’s SLUT: The Play, which toured across the nation to spark conversation about sexism, sexual assault, and slut-shaming. The California-based FCK YES web series depicts affirmative consent in fun, relatable ways. Organizations like the Lady Parts Justice — a team of writers, comedians, and other creative activists led by The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead — are devoted to exposing legislative attacks on reproductive health care.

LPJ produces original content to bust false information spread by politicians, like the myth that Plan B and other birth control are forms of abortion.

While creative efforts to get sex ed right often manifest on the coasts, if we’re ever going to reach prime national sex ed (a girl can dream), we need all states on board.

Luckily, state politicians don’t represent state people. We’ve got red state artists and activists organizing and working within their own communities, with their own resources, for change.

On an individual level, if you’re the sibling or parent of a teenager, just talk about it. Have courage and answer their questions. Don’t force the conversation, but let them know you’re there to listen. Point them in the direction of resources like Scarleteen or Porn Hub’s new Sexual Health Center (and let them know that the majority of porn is a terrible representation of real sex). For navigating the emotions surrounding sex through an avenue already open for some young readers, young adult fiction is an appealing path.

We’ve got red state artists and activists organizing and working within their own communities for change.

Still, I understand that relying on the initiative of open-minded parents to revolutionize sex ed is idealistic; access to supportive and equipped role models is a privilege. When the two most influential environments in a teen’s life — their school and home — fails at providing them with necessary life education, the natural back-up plan is turning to friends and the Internet. Those friends are equally as confused and the web is an overwhelming ocean of information, but there’s potential in the pervasive influence of technology.

What if an app as popular as Snapchat or Instagram sparked the attention of teenagers across the nation? Maybe that’s the future of Juicebox, a recently launched app that takes sex ed right to the one place most teens are guaranteed to have access: their smartphones.

And its creator, 24-year-old Brianna Rader — who grew up in abstinence-only territory Tennessee — seems to have genuinely prioritized the concerns of teenagers in her research. Feedback is so important but often overlooked when people think of solutions to societal problems, tech or otherwise; sometimes people will just run with an idea without consulting their intended audience.

The app offers two equally important features: “Snoop” and “Spill.” Snoop allows users to ask questions like “Where can I get an STI test?” and “Can I get pregnant on my period?” while Spill is an aggregated board of stories about sex and relationships.

If the Republican-controlled government refuses to provide a social good, let’s fill in the gap with grassroots action and community.

There we have it! In the absence of institutional reform, there’s hope for comprehensive sex education in the form of apps, books, creative short videos, non-profit advocacy, and personal efforts to demystify our changing, growing bodies.

College is too late to learn about the basics of reproductive anatomy and how we should treat each other with respect. Students shouldn’t be stepping onto college campuses without understanding the gravity of consent.

If the Republican-controlled government refuses to provide a social good, let’s fill in the gap with grassroots action and community.

We owe it to younger generations.

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