What I Wish I Learned In Sex Ed

By Markita Schulman

As the Tamalpais Union High School District gears up to revise its curriculum with a new emphasis on “21st century skills,” I propose it’s as good a time as ever to take a look at our sex education curriculum. Having taken some pseudo-mandatory variation of “sex ed” three separate times in a Mill Valley public school, I am dismayed that I have still never been educated about sex.

Sure, I’m fairly informed about the location and purpose of the vas deferens, and I’ve sat through many an answer to anonymous questions about “queefing,” but in my view, our community’s relatively progressive curriculum still isn’t good enough. I believe that sex should be addressed as more than just a vaguely frightening clinical act. Discussion of sex should not be all about “consequences,” but about the emotional why’s and how’s as much as the physical.

Thanks to our community’s comparatively liberal values, Mill Valley schools have escaped the ignorance and intolerance of abstinence-only “sex” education. However, “there is abstinence-only sex education, and there’s abstinence-based sex ed,” said Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a 2011 New York Times article, “Teaching Good Sex.” “There’s almost nothing else left in public schools.” Some sex educators have labeled the latter option no more than “disaster-prevention,” wishing that they could be allowed to teach more. And that is the curriculum we are left with here.

Thankfully, students are not taught here, as they are in many places across the United States, that having sex before marriage is a sin against any and all gods, that contraceptives will not be effective in preventing pregnancy or Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI’s) and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD’s), or that premarital sex will, without exception, kill them. In fact the student population here at Tam has access to amazing resources in comparison to much of the rest of the country.

I am primarily discussing my actual experience and not what is technically in the curriculum, as I have learned that what is being taught is not necessarily consistent with the state and district’s intentions. It took the personal investigation of one Redwood High School student, Jake Mates, for the School Board to become aware of and change 19-year-old Tamalpais District Sexual Education policies that instructed teachers to “’teach honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage,’ disregard informing students about STI’s, and stress abstinence until marriage,” according to the November, 2012 edition of the Redwood Bark. Also, it seems that whether we are 14 or 40 we have been conditioned by our society to feel uncomfortable about our sexuality, and to skirt the issues regarding sex and teen sex even more so.

In my experience, not only has Planned Parenthood visited my classroom, but I have watched teachers put lubricant and condoms on wooden dildos. I have filled out numerous worksheets about the rates of effectiveness of various types of contraceptives, and examined many charts about STI’s and STD’s. On one occasion, my class was shown a movie about the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sex education, and one teenager’s crusade to change the curriculum at her high school.

I paint this picture neither to endorse nor condemn what is currently being taught as sex education in our schools. I suggest not a substitute but a supplement. In order to have an intelligent and sensitive discussion of sex, in many ways a private, personal, and sometimes controversial topic, sex education should begin with, or at some point include, the basics that we are currently taught. But that is a prologue, an introduction, and a poor excuse for the entire conversation, especially when the conversation is as important as this one. It shocks me when an anonymous question box is passed around, its contents skimmed and brushed off in the last ten minutes of the last class of the unit. The inclusion of this common practice in curriculum does not mean that the teacher or guest speaker has even begun to cover what is really on students’ minds, not only because it is frequently such a low priority that time simply runs out, but also because even in an anonymous setting, teenagers—whose discomfort around the discussion of sex and sexuality is more excusable than that of adults whose job it is to teach students about sex—are prone to make a joke out of these questions, not want to write what is really on their mind, or not know what to ask.

Sex education classes should begin by developing a genuinely safe space. Though it’s cute, and perhaps a friendly way to broach the subject, it is not enough for a Planned Parenthood volunteer to teach everyone the phrase, “Don’t yuck my yum,” something I myself have heard in at least one sex ed course, which is supposed to convey, essentially, “To each his own.” There must be a strict policy, understood and agreed upon by students and teachers alike, that there is no particular right or wrong in these conversations. This is perhaps the most daunting task but the most important. Talking about sex, sexuality, disease, pregnancy, love, etc. should be confidential (within the walls of the classroom) and not brushed off too lightly. The old rule, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question,” should be reinforced again and again.

The class should address the technical, social, emotional, and ethical sides of sex, sexuality, and relationships. In fact, in the ideal world, calling it a “sex ed” class might no longer be appropriate. Our educational system has for so long been separating sex from human interactions that we have forgotten about the very important issues that overlap the two. It is a rare student who wants to know about the function of the fallopian tubes (though this information is valuable in its own right) relative to the number interested in whether something they are experiencing is “normal.”

This could mean the size, shape, or color of body parts, presence or lack of body hair, choices one makes regarding masturbation, choices regarding sexual intercourse or abstinence, questions and statements made about sexual identity, orientation, and more. Furthermore, students deserve a more realistic representation of adult sexuality than pornography, which they will inevitably turn to in order to answer their questions about normality, whether this is intentionally viewed (and more widely available than ever thanks to the Internet) or subconsciously absorbed from our sex-obsessed media.

Misconceptions perpetuated by sources other than reliable sex education not only have negative effects on expectations of the physical but also of the emotional and psychological sides of sex. The value of communication in any sort of relationship, especially when sexual acts are involved, is something that must be addressed in a sex ed course. Also, our society’s mostly homogeneous pop culture has enforced one particular image of what is attractive, not only potentially causing self-consciousness and feelings of personal worthlessness, but also potentially leading teens to question whether what they are attracted to, or what turns them on, is wrong. This topic can and should stem further than, “some girls like girls,” and even into the topic of asexuality.

Only the most oblivious adult, one who has also forgotten their own adolescence, could possibly believe that teenagers are not asking questions and looking for answers wherever possible, however reputable the source. If our schools purport to be offering sex education, it is their responsibility to actually be arming students with information that will allow them to ask healthy, responsible questions—but it is unacceptable to put words in their mouths when it comes to what their answers should be.