It's hard to forget what your first sex ed class was like — if you even had one. There was likely a lot of blushing and giggling, a condom on a banana, and some truly upsetting photos of STIs. But it's also likely that your sex ed curriculum was not as nuanced as it should have been. And you might still be carrying some ideas with you that are, well, actually pretty toxic.
Sex ed should not be harmful or shameful. "The goal of sex education is to provide young people with ... sufficient and accurate information about sexuality and [sexual identity] so that they can have the healthiest relationship possible with themselves, their bodies and with others in their life," Kristin Marie Bennion, licensed mental health therapist and certified sex therapist, tells Bustle. It also, on a more basic level, keeps you safe. The World Health Organization's 2006 definition of sexual health is the "possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence." And sex ed can help young people reach those standards.
Instead, unfortunately, sex ed sometimes provides more questions than answers. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy institute for sexual and reproductive health, as of 2014, a massive 76 percent of American public and private schools taught that abstinence is the most effective way to avoid pregnancy, STIs, and HIV. And as of 2014, only about 35 percent of school programs even taught students how to put on a condom. Even with all the hype and funding going into abstinence-only education, students with this education are no more likely to delay sex, to have fewer sexual partners, or to abstain entirely. And the abstinence rhetoric is particularly risky for LGBTQ adolescents or young people who have been sexually assaulted or abused.
Luckily, there's a new generation of sex educators who are trying to fight stigma and shame with honesty and humanity. "What is missing in sex ed is the humane, compassionate side of this topic: the acknowledgement that sex and sexuality, relating to our own budding bodies as well as to partners, are awkward for all of us," Irene Fehr, sex & intimacy coach, tells Bustle. But this shouldn't be the case.
Here are ten 10 toxic things you may have learned in sex ed.
1. Basically Everything About Virginity
Virginity is not only a construct (or a spectrum), it lends itself to sexist notions associated with sexuality and tends to leave the LGBTQ community out of the conversation. But your sex ed class probably didn't teach you that. "Although virginity is a social construct more than anything, our society has inculcated us with the tendency to emphasize, maybe even overemphasize, this step of life," health and wellness coach Caleb Backe tells Bustle. The emphasis causes some major anxiety, obsession with age and numbers, and a hierarchy around who's "done it" and who hasn't.
"In my opinion, the most unhelpful thing people can pick up from any sex education, public or private, is that their worth as a person is related to their sexuality or sex history in any way," Bennion says. "This leads to extremely unhealthy levels of (unnecessary) shame, which ironically makes it even more difficult for people to migrate sexual experiences in ways that are respectful of themselves and the people they are with." No matter what your first sex ed class made you feel, your worth has absolutely nothing to do with your number of sexual partners.
2. That STIs Are Shameful
The whole situation around teaching STIs really needs to be rectified and freed of stigma. "Many people get to see the disgusting pictures of STIs, active, weeping lesions, scabs, [etcetera] shown in an effort to 'scare' people out of wanting to get busy," Dr. Lanae St. John, board certified sexologist and professor of human sexuality, tells Bustle. "It doesn’t work. People think 'that’ll never happen to me' and move on ... we don’t show pictures of third degree burns when we teach kids how to use the stove, why do we show pics of STIs when we teach about sex? It’s ridiculous." Plus, these kinds of scare tactics can lead to future ramifications when it comes to taking care of your health.
"Often, young people are taught 'STIs are scary! Don't have sex!' and not taught medically accurate information about how to make decisions to protect themselves and their partners," Clinical Sexologist, and sex therapist for LifeStyles Condoms, Rena McDaniel, MEd tells Bustle. Some things that often get overlooked include the facts that condoms don't protect against all STIs, and that STIs can be transmitted both genitally and orally. Plus, with all the commotion around fear and avoidance, what actually happens if and when you get an STI gets misunderstood.
"I don’t think there is enough emphasis on the dangers and reality of sexually transmitted infections," Backe says. "Even though many of these conditions are easily remedied, there can still be serious or even fatal consequences. For instance, too many teenagers are unaware that several of these infections can cause infertility in both men and women." This is totally unhelpful when about 80 percent of the population has HPV. Oh, and Gardasil is safe and potentially life-saving (and recommended for all genders). So, yes, there is a little bit of research to be done outside the classroom.
3. That LGBTQ Sex Isn't Worth Learning About
You're lucky if your sex ed class even brought up the existence of non-heterosexual or non-cis people. "The sexuality education that is often taught in schools is extraordinarily heteronormative, which is reflective of the heteronormative culture that we live in," McDaniel says. "Whole populations of people, such as anyone who identifies along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum are excluded. This leaves these populations more vulnerable as they are not receiving sexuality education that is relevant to their sexual experiences." This is extremely harmful for LGBTQ people and heterosexual and cis people alike.
The hurt can magnify the awkwardness of sex ed, and confuse young people who are already feeling excluded. "Even just the existence of LGBTQIA+ people was excluded from sex education when I was in school," Stephanie Alys Co-founder and Chief Pleasure Officer at MysteryVibe, tells Bustle. "Being a teenager is already really hard. But being a teenager and feeling as though you’re different, or there’s something wrong by this exclusion, is even harder. We need to give people context, and teach them that it’s not always boy meets girl. It may be boy meets boy, girl meets girl. Or even better, X meet X." It's important to know that your sex ed experience isn't a reflection of what's out there, and that there are sex educators out there revolutionizing the field so the next generation doesn't experience the same shame.
4. That Asexuality Isn't A Thing
Beyond heteronormativity, there's also the construct that everyone experiences sexual attraction. Meet an asexual person and you'll understand that's not true. Plus, about one in a hundred people are asexual, so this sexual orientation really shouldn't be treated like so much of a mystery.
"Most people don't fully understand asexuality and it is a topic that doesn't receive a lot of research funding for us to learn more," McDaniel says. "We do know that folks who are asexual are not broken and have a perfectly normal sexual response, even if that sexual response isn't on the top half of a normative bell curve. There is nothing wrong with having a sexual or relational orientation that doesn't center around sexual and/or romantic connection." Once again, your sex ed teacher probably didn't know everything, and might not have covered this topic.
5. That There's Only One "Real" Kind Of Sex
This may seem obvious now, but it might not have come up in your middle school sex ed class. Not all sex involves a penis entering a vagina, and if it does, that is not the sole requirement of good sex.
Not only is this reductive in terms of the spectrum of sexualities, but it also makes things really confusing for people with vaginas who want to experience pleasure. "One of the misconceptions I see folks picking up from sex ed is that penile/vaginal sex is the primary way that people with vulvas experience sexual pleasure," McDaniel says. "We are taught very little about the clitoris and even less about how to properly stimulate it. We are also taught very little about the sexual response cycle and the various things that influence it, such as trauma, anxiety and depression medication, differences in libido, [etcetera]. This leaves many folks feeling broken because their sexuality doesn't match up with the media's portrayal of what sex should look and feel like." Having a teacher tell you "foreplay is fun" and then go into the messy details of anatomy probably didn't strike the right balance when you were first learning about pain and pleasure.
"[Incomprehensive] sex ed teaches us that good sexual health is the 'absence of a problem,' rather than the 'existence of pleasure,'" Alys says. That might be a part of why so many people are under-satisfied in bed.
6. That Abstinence Solves Everything
Unfortunately, your taxpayer money may still go towards incredibly ineffective abstinence-only sex education. Don't forget that the states with the highest teen birth rates have abstinence-based education. And while the success rate of abstinence is technically 100 percent, the average American still starts having sex around age 17. "When we are ashamed, scared or confused, we're less likely to have difficult intimate conversations about STIs, protection, pregnancy — and are less likely to ask for what we want, making sex not enjoyable for one or both partners," Fehr says.
This not only makes students confused about sexual health and pleasure, but also can put them at risk. "[Abstinence only or abstinence-based sex ed] often requires that information about sexual desire and pleasure remain out of the sex education curriculum," Bennion says. "Some of the information about STIs can be helpful, but teachers can sometimes be limited from being able to discuss safe sex practices, such as the use of condoms, which means the information the kids are getting is limited and insufficient" You deserve a more comprehensive sex education and to make your own decisions about whether to engage in sex.
7. That Consent Is A Separate Issue
Consent, thankfully, is buzzy right now, but even so you might still be carrying around some misconceptions about what it means from sex ed. Remember, consent is the bare minimum. "[While we're getting better,] we have a lot of years (centuries, really) of patriarchal rape culture to undo. And I think I just heard the word 'consent' used in any meaningful way in the larger culture in the past three years. So, we have a bit of work to do," McDaniel says. Effectively talking about consent likely means creating a more open and honest environment than your sex ed classroom might have fostered.
"By using a 'plumbing and prevention' model that focuses on babies, condoms and STIs, we are missing out on things like identity, pleasure and consent," Alys says. And those things all go hand-in-hand.
"We need to talk about the importance of sexual safety — the need for emotional safety between partners for [a person] to get intimate, open up, share desires, feel safe with each other. This is critical for [someone's] ability to get aroused and open up sexually, and it is critical for both partners to be able to connect and have intimate sex," Fehr says. Luckily, everyone's still learning, and people are opening up to this issue more than ever before.
8. That Sex Ed Is Totally Separate Than Other Types Of Education
Everything is intersectional. And sex ed isn't just a one-off, week-long thing you have to experience in seventh grade. It's something you need to keep exploring for life. "Just like we teach about civics and how our government works to enable people to vote and make educated decisions in the governing of their lives, sex ed should provide information about our bodies, relating, and intimacy to enable educated decisions in our sex lives," Fehr says. Plus, it should include a segue into a larger conversation about healthcare, inequality, and justice for marginalized communities. Idealistic? Perhaps. But pretending sex exists in a vacuum definitely isn't right.
9. That Sex Toys Aren't Part Of Sexual Health
It's pretty unlikely that, outside of a Q&A session, anyone brought up sex toys — and safe use of sex toys — in your adolescent sex ed class. "I wish I was taught about safe sex toys," Alys says. "This is so critical. Naturally, we begin to experiment with masturbation from a young age. That could mean using household objects to touch or insert. Objects that aren’t body-safe potentially covered in bacteria and harmful chemicals that shouldn’t be anywhere near our genitals. This is very dangerous, and something that’s not discussed widely enough — educating children about safe sex toys and materials is absolutely essential." On top of not addressing safe use, sex ed never really delved into how common sex toy use can be, and how it's nothing to be ashamed of. So if your sex ed class was lacking in the toy department, it can be worth it to learn more about sex toy use, and how it can elevate your sex life.
10. That Once Sex Ed Is Over, You're Done Learning
Sex ed doesn't ever end. "Sex and sexuality is a nuanced and expansive topic that you can spend the rest of your life diving into," McDaniels says. "Relying on the education you got from your parents, sex ed in schools, peers, and media is an extremely limiting view of what is possible. Do the work to read and learn more about your body, your partner's body, and sex in general is well worth the investment of time and energy." This can be fun and exciting, too — another way to empower yourself as you grow.
"When focused on STIs, reproductive risks and such, sex ed becomes a heavy, serious topic in an area that already feels awkward, shameful and scary for many," Fehr says. "Sexual relating is and should be a beautiful, light, fun and connecting experience. Rather than scare people, we need to frame sex ed in the context of lightness, play and ease — to lighten the shame of something so natural and so beautiful in our lives and make learning more effective." Sex is fun, and learning about it should be too.
You have a whole lifetime to have sex. So you shouldn't relegate your sexual education to one humiliating week when you still had braces. Revolutionizing sex ed can begin with simply recognizing that everything you think you know may not be true. Instead of focusing on what you may or may not have learned in the past, focus on communicating with your partner, and checking out Planned Parenthood and other awesome online resources to keep on top of the latest information.