Feminism | Posted by Selena T on 12/6/2010

You Will Get Pregnant And Die

Sex education is an experience that brings two memories to mind- the first of walking, red faced and weak kneed, to the desk in front of the class room, on which a monstrous, purple, shiny, plastic penis stands erect next to a trojan condom. I am expected to slip the condom onto the penis, but my hands are too sweaty to open the wrapper. The class breaks down into hysterical laughter, the kind of hyena-like shrieks that only a room full of 12 year old girls can produce. I repeat “this too shall pass, this too shall pass” over and over to myself while trying to figure out how to possibly stretch such a small condom over such a large phallus.

The second takes place 4 years later in high school. My petite, blonde health teacher is lecturing us on the dangers of premarital sex- emotional distress, pregnancy out of wedlock, STDs-while sitting in front of a large projected image of a vagina covered in red lesions. I feel nauseated and somewhat annoyed as she repeats, for the umpteenth time, that “Abstinence is the only 100% guaranteed protection against STDs and pregnancy.” No. Shit.

The Abstinence vs Comprehensive Sex Education debate has been covered extensively in the news and watched closely by parents and teachers. Teenage girls themselves are rarely asked their opinion on the matter, even though we are the people who this effects the most. If anyone stopped to ask me, I would tell them that both of these programs have hugely failed me. My real sex education, like the “sex ed” of most teens I know, came from personal trial and error, experiences that felt like stabs in the dark- and this is a shame.

The downfall of both of the sex education classes I was subjected to were that the teachers treated us like empty buckets that they could fill with information and moral commentary. In order to be successful, Sex Ed programs need to treat their students as intelligent, critically thinking human beings capable of forming their own opinions and acting on their own decisions, while at the same time being conscious of the fact that they are extremely vulnerable to mis-information and pressure from their peers, family, teachers, and media.

Abstinence-only or -primarily based programs do not meet either of these criteria. The idea that we need a whole course in order to understand the obvious- that abstinence is the only 100% effective protection against STDs and pregnancy- is an insult to our intelligence. Abstinence can be completely effective on an individual level when a person decides for him or herself that they want to refrain from sex. Institutional abstinence, however, fails. This comprises abstinence only sex ed, purity pledges, rings, balls, or any other scenario where the decision to remain abstinent is made by people other than the teen expected to be abstinent. In order for any program to be successful, it needs to engage its students in a discussion, where both parties- the teacher and student- exchange thoughts and ideas.

Comprehensive Sex education does take this approach to some extent. Providing purely factual information about contraceptives, pregnancy, intercourse, body parts, and STDs honors our intelligence and right to information in a way that repeating the abstinence based slogan does not. The progressiveness, in most cases, ends there. Providing us with scientific facts and the tools to take control of our sexuality is wonderful and necessary. However, we need more information in order to be able to make a completely informed decision about whether or not to have sex. We need to know how to communicate what we want and don’t want from sex with another person, what exactly sex does and does not entail, and all of the external factors (history of sexuality in this country, current societal expectations, family expectations, the media, religion) that contribute to an individual’s sex life. Telling us the ways to have safe sex without explaining the multi faceted and complex nature of sex and sexuality is somewhat irresponsible and by no means comprehensive.

The success of a sexual education program cannot be measured by the percentage of teens who abstained or delayed having sex, because this does not necessarily mean that their first times engaging in sexual intercourse (married or unmarried) were any less traumatic. In order to reduce the trauma of many girls first times engaging in a sexual act, they need to know exactly what that act consists of. I want to have been taught about the pain and the pleasure, bodily fluids, and noises involved in order to combat the sterilized version of sex that we have been confronted with from an early age, which simply involves kissing, nudity, moaning, dim lighting, and romantic background music. I want to have been taught how to communicate what I want sexually. I want to have been taught that, despite what he says happens in porn videos, I am allowed to advocate for myself when I feel uncomfortable.

The most important thing for a sex education program to do is not to idealize sex (marital or premarital), marriage, “love,” a non marital romantic relationship, or fetishize virginity or the loss of virginity. Sex ed should be honest and inclusive, and should provide me with an understanding of the multiple theories about sexuality (feminist, religious, etc.). Sex ed should, above all, enable girls to communicate and advocate for what they do and don’t want their sexuality to consist of. This is what I, as an American teenage girl, want from my school. Ya know, in case anyone cares.

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  • Katherine C. @ at 12:07 pm, December 6th, 2010

    *STANDING OVATION*

    Bravisima!

    This is something I have HUGE issues with, and it’s why I made enough of a fuss to be excused from our school’s abstinence-only “health” class that I was allowed to take the program my UCC church offers, which is more comprehensive-sex-ed-like but still has a shit-ton nf problems. Hve you ever seen the musical “Spring Awakening?” This is what happens when teenegers get ignored and pushed aside and conscended to, folks.

  • Kacie G. @ at 12:45 pm, December 6th, 2010

    Very well-written and well-thought out! This is the type of class that all students should have access to. My health teachers gave us “the facts” about sex and they were all true, but they didn’t talk to us about the emotional aspect of a sexual relationship which is THE MOST important part. You are very right to identify the experience as traumatic because it really is when you aren’t taught what to expect, married or not.

  • SarahC @ at 1:18 pm, December 6th, 2010

    Hear, Hear!

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I was lucky enough to receive “comprehensive” sex ed, but even that fell short on most counts.

    Also, thank you for making the differentiation between individual and institutional abstinence. I personally feel that this is a differentiation that needs to be made more often in discussion of sex ed and birth control. Shutting down discussion by stating the “abstinence doesn’t work” is almost as bad as the scare tactics about condoms used by abstinence only “educators”. A more accurate statement needs to be made, like: “Unless you choose abstinence out of your own deeply held personal conviction, it’s statistically unlikely to work in the long term.”

  • Elisa Cafferata @ at 3:12 pm, December 6th, 2010

    This is a fantastic article! We’ve been collecting sex ed stories too – the write up we got about sex ed in rural Nevada school districts is one of my favorites.

  • Nano Muse @ at 6:40 pm, December 6th, 2010

    (Do you guys have comment screening on? Just curious, something has changed recently but I can’t tell what…)

    ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

  • A @ at 5:15 pm, December 24th, 2010

    Excellent! I’ve had sex education in school in 5th grade (puberty), middle school health (again, focused on puberty), in biology (solely scientific), and this year I take high school health, which includes sex ed. In a fairly conservative public school I’m curious to see if we have an abstnience only program.

  • lizzie @ at 10:46 pm, October 24th, 2011

    This is fantastic. My high school was abstinence-only, and i really think it left so many of my friends seriously traumatized after their first sexual explorations. If only gender studies were integrated into sexual health curricula the conversation would be so much more relevant!

  • Emma @ at 5:34 pm, December 9th, 2011

    This always makes me sad. My school, and many of the schools around me (I’m rather embarassed to admit that I am not entirely sure if this is the school’s or a governing body’s decision)have proper sex ed.
    There is all the pubery stuff when we were about eleven, and then when we were thirteen/fourteen we had a two hour long class taking by someone from out of school. She was great. It was compleatly non-bullshit, tell you what you want to know. I know a lot of people would have had issues with what she had said to us. But to be honest, she wasn’t in the slightest telling us to have sex. She was just telling us what we needed to know. That with a little thrown in self esteem talk.
    It was a little uncomfortable. But it was really good, and covered loads of stuff.
    The thing is, its sort of something that we all took for granted, and it took me a while to realise that the vast majority of people do not have access to this sort of sex ed.

  • Sophia @ at 3:38 pm, May 9th, 2012

    Super, super, kick ass true!

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