Based on the name of the program, you’d think sex education taught people about sex. But what actually happens for most Americans is that it teaches them one narrow version of sex and a whole lot of sexist BS.
In sex ed, I learned that not just my gender but my very biology put me at a disadvantage, that sexual pleasure was reserved for men so I’d just need to grin and bear it, and that the only valid kind of sex was between a cisgender man and a cisgender woman.
Here are some of the harmful messages sex ed unintentionally sends - and the empowering ones it should be sending instead.
Read: When Sex Ed Sucks
Being Female Sucks
Sex ed sure makes it sound like those with vulvas get the short end of the stick. While the boys learn about pleasurable experiences like erections and wet dreams, the girls learn about uncomfortable ones like getting your period, growing breasts and trying not to get pregnant.
Following my first sex ed class in fifth grade, I developed a deep longing to be a boy. I felt that as a girl, I was destined for a life of pain and suffering.
I wish I’d been told I’d get a great deal of joy out of my sexual fantasies, that I could get even more joy out of masturbation, or that I should get joy out of sex. I wish I’d been told that growing breasts didn’t have to be scary because they belonged to me and they were not inherently sexual and I could do whatever I wanted with them.
I wish I’d been told that pain was my body’s way of telling me something’s wrong. I wish I’d been told my body should be a source of happiness and pleasure.
Sex = Penis + Vagina
In sex ed, I learned that sex begins when a penis goes into a vagina and ends when that penis ejaculates. It really left me wondering what was in it for the other person.
Unfortunately, this definition of “sex” normalizes sexual encounters where there is basically nothing in it for someone with a vulva. There was no acknowledgement that intercourse could lead to female pleasure as well, or that clitoral stimulation was often necessary for female orgasm. It made sex sound like it was solely for men, which unfortunately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Schools don’t have to give kids a “how to” to fix that. Giving an overview of the different kinds of sex and the data on how different people’s bodies respond to them, rather than arbitrarily narrowing in on one type of sex, would actually be a more objective, scientific approach.
Queer People Don't Exist
Another problem with the narrow view of sex presented in sex ed is that it only applies to couples consisting of someone with a penis and someone with a vulva. There’s rarely any acknowledgement of any other kind of sex. Even my more advanced sex ed classes in high school, which covered STI protection, focused on preventing STIs during PIV intercourse.
Sex ed lessons are also full of language about “becoming a woman” and “becoming a man,” leaving little room for people to forge their own identities. As a non-binary person, this reinforced the message that my body destined me for an identity I didn’t want.
This curriculum not only emotionally hurts LGBTQ people by making them feel abnormal, but it can also compromise their health by denying them the information they need to have safer sex. For sex ed to be truly comprehensive, it needs to cater to all populations.
Men Are Sexual Beings, Women Are Sexual Objects
Sex ed, like the rest of our culture, made male sexual desire sound voracious and threatening and female desire sound nonexistent.
We learned that the boys would constantly be flooded with sexual thoughts and raging hard-ons. Women, on the other hand, were creepily referenced in a description of how a man could get an erection “just from thinking about a pretty aunt,” then again in a segment where a boy covertly plays with a girl’s bra strap. (The latter’s message was presumably that sexual harassment is wrong, but the main message I took from it was that it would happen.)
This leaves no room for women to enjoy their sexuality. How can we enjoy something we don’t even want? When there’s no acknowledgement that women even want sex, kids once again get the idea that sex is a chore women do for men - and that they should have no problem doing this chore solely for someone else’s pleasure.
Fortunately, I ended up learning more empowering messages about sex in college and from online resources like Scarleteen and Ask Alice when I got older. But mostly, I learned through personal experience that what I’d been taught in sex ed was BS.
I learned that I had fantasies and masturbated to them whether people acknowledged it or not. I learned that I got visually aroused, that I wasn’t just an object for others’ visual arousal. And I learned that sex could be a ton of fun for me — so if it wasn’t, there was a problem.
But not everybody gets the chance to learn these things themselves before society shames them out of it. That’s why it’s so important to reform sex education and, in the meantime, keep educating one another about how sex can — and should — be.