When Andrew was a child, he figured out that if he rubbed his penis in just the right way, it would feel amazing. No one had ever told him about masturbation, so his obvious conclusion was that he must be the first person to ever discover this trick. Not long after this revelation, his grandmother died. For the first time, he became aware of death. He became obsessed with his own mortality and what would happen if he died before he could tell the world about this fascinating discovery. Would this amazing breakthrough of the human body be lost forever if he was to suddenly fall off of the side of a building? Would he have enough time to tell the world before he splattered to the ground?
Childhood is filled with stories of how we misunderstood the world around us. When it comes to sexuality though, these misconceptions can last significantly longer and have more serious consequences. In the best of cases, not providing kids with proper knowledge about sex, bodies, relationships and gender identity sets them up for awkward embarrassments. More likely, however, it sets them up for dangerous failures in basic human interactions.
Over the last few years, I have interviewed dozens of people about how they first started to realize there was a vital part of the human experience being hidden from them and the misconceptions they developed as a result. What ties all of these interviews together, with people spanning across countries and generations, is that none of them were taught enough about sexuality to prepare them for their future relationships and experiences.
No matter if we think kids are ready or not for “the talk,” they are out there picking up on information and trying to piece it together. Most of the people I interviewed grew up in a time where, at best, they could download a solitary nude picture over the course of a day and a half. Now, just about every seven-year-old has their own smartphone. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that kids aren’t already well aware of what sex is long before we gather the nerve to talk to them about it.
Desperate for Information
Kids who are desperate for information will search anywhere they can to find it. And that doesn't mean what they find will be accurate. One woman I spoke with grew up in a house where no one ever talked about sex, so she and her best friend spent hours at Blockbuster scanning the backs of movies, looking for any indication of some kind of sex scene. She even turned to The SIMs game when she found out there was a secret function where your character can get it on with another (consenting!) character.
There are also loads of people who braved the wrath of their parents, rifling through drawers and closets and safes to find any magazine or video that might give them a bit of insight. All because they feel there is nowhere else they can turn to get honest information. If we are leaving our kids to learn about sex from movies and video games, that’s a sign that we are doing something terribly wrong.
Kids Talk to Their Peers
Since talking to adults is mortifying for most kids, they often end up talking to their peers instead. This only solidifies a loop of misinformation. Luciano, for example, learned about sex when one of his friends got a porn video from his older brother. Immediately after pushing the cassette into the VCR, he noticed something was terribly wrong. The woman was making grimaces and sounds he could only relate to suffering. Then, all of a sudden, something came out of the man’s penis and splashed all over the woman. The only thing Luciano knew could come out of penises was urine. So, he thought that not only was this woman being hurt, but, adding insult to injury, she was also being peed on. He decided then and there that he would never have sex because he had no interest in hurting women, or peeing on them for that matter.
In addition to talking with each other, kids also turn to their peers to get a “hands on” learning experience. The idea of playing doctor or house is cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason. It’s normal for children to have this experimental play with peers. Frankly, there isn’t much we can do to stop them. All we can do is set up parameters to help ensure our kids are safe. Especially since these games often happen when kids are quite young, well before they have sex ed in school.
Other Sources of Sex Ed
When parents and schools drop the ball on sex ed, other communities, like the church, come and fill the gap. This is isn't to say that the church can’t play a role in sex education. It’s just that a group that says, “no sex before you are married, and if you do it you will be dirty and unlovable,” is probably not a good solitary provider of sexual information. Maybe that’s not what your church taught you, but I grew up in the Bible Belt and it's definitely what I learned.
That is also what Jazz was taught by her church. The only real information she was given was "sex is sinful and dirty and there are intense, lifelong consequences.”
She knew she shouldn’t so much as kiss a boy, but self-control is useless in the face of hormones. Trying to avoid real-world temptations, Jazz moved her exploration into the online world. As with many of us who grew up in the 2000s, Jazz explored the often dodgy world of AOL chatrooms. She knew that masturbation was not OK either, but it seemed better than real-life sex. She eventually gave in to the lesser sin. This is how, at 14, she ended up masturbating while cybersexing with strangers. Immediately afterward, she was overcome with religious guilt. In a misguided attempt to make amends with the man upstairs, she would introduce Jesus into the conversation and try to convert the cyberstranger. That’s right, masturbation and proselytizating all in the same go. She carried this sexual shame - and its negative repercussions - with her for years.
Learning About Consent
Better sex ed is important not just so teenagers can learn about STIs and pregnancy, but also so they can learn about how they should treat one another. Not fully understanding concepts such as consent can have huge ramifications for people of any age. Sophia told me about how she would always say no, even to things she wanted to do, because she didn’t know she could stop an interaction halfway through. She thought that once she said yes to something like kissing, there was no way to put on the brakes later on.
Consent doesn’t have to only be sexual, either. Tom didn’t understand that consent also applied to relationships. Any time one of his friends developed a crush on him, he would avoid that girl at all costs because he thought if they stayed friends, they would have to be boyfriend and girlfriend. This ended up costing him a number of friends and caused him and others significant heartache. Both of these situations could have been avoided with a basic conversation about consent (something that we, as a society, are at least getting better at).
Talking About Gender
For most of her childhood, Cat thought that being a girl meant she had to wear dresses and play with dolls. Since she had no interest in doing either of these things, she struggled with her identity as a girl and wondered if she should have been a boy - just because she wanted to play with Action Man figures and not Barbies.
Patrik worried for years that rubbing up against his stuffed animal could make him gay. He had no idea what gay actually meant, though. But he had picked up the notion that being gay was something weird or unusual and that rubbing against a stuffed animal was probably both of those things (it’s actually not, in reality).
Even if you don’t think that schools should be teaching every detail about sex, there are basic concepts around bodies, relationships, and gender that kids need to learn about in order to have healthy relationships with other people and themselves. Maybe we will never achieve a perfect sex ed system, but in just about every country (except for you, Scandinavia, we know you are killing it), it is clear that we could be doing better. If we continue to let kids struggle to figure out these important life lessons on their own, we will only continue to set them up for failure and possibly damaging relationships.