What Sex Education Looked Like In The ‘90s Versus Today, & How It Can Still Improve
While I came up during the Bush era of abstinence-only “sex education,” I had pretty decent sex ed for the time. Our sex ed teacher in Burlington, Vermont, was a local pediatrician — my pediatrician, in fact — who wasn’t scared of student questions and didn’t shy away from the condom/banana demonstration. She was frank, clear, and even talked about consent way back in the ‘90s and early aughts, decades before the #MeToo movement. From puberty to intercourse, she did a good job guiding us.
That doesn’t mean the sex ed I got was perfect, however. For one thing, it was infrequent. We had one sex ed session per school year, starting in fourth grade. And if you missed that session? Guess you don’t get to learn about birth control! For another thing, this was like 20 years ago, and our cultural understandings of gender, sexuality, and consent were very different from where they are today.
But I was lucky to get that any kind of comprehensive sex ed during that time period. In 1996 — when I was in third grade and hitting puberty like a brick wall — President Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act and ushered in the beginning of the abstinence-only sex education era. President Bush doubled down on abstinence-only policies; in 2006 — when I was, thankfully, already a high school graduate — he explicitly forbade educators who received federal funding from talking about condoms and other contraceptives.
So, yeah, not a great time to be getting sex education in public school. And these days aren’t that much better, despite the fact that President Obama defunded abstinence-only policies during his tenure. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 24 states and the District of Columbia even require that sex ed is taught. Even scarier, only 13 states require that sex education be medically accurate. You’d think that medical accuracy would be the barest baseline for sex education but, unfortunately, it is not.
Sex ed in the ‘90s had a lot of gaps — but so does sex ed today. And while I was fortunate enough to have parents who filled in a lot of those gaps for me and my siblings, that wasn’t the case for all of classmates. Now that I’m a sex educator myself, I’m even more aware of how little students learned then and are still learning today.
So what do I wish my formal sex education looked like when I was a teen? Here are seven points that I think could improve sex ed for teens today.
1. Greater Frequency
First of all, we need more of it! When I was a teen, we just had that once a year class. Sex is very complicated and very important and deserves much more time that we’re giving it, though of course curriculums vary by district. I think at least a full semester class on human sexuality around ninth grade would be an amazing addition to American sex education. That gives students time to really get comfortable with the subject matter and gives educators enough time to cover a broad range of topics.
2. A Focus On Pleasure
My sex ed teacher absolutely did mention that sex “feels good,” but I think we could have focused much more on pleasure than we did. The message that sex should be pleasurable to everyone involved is not one that many teens got or are getting today. You know how I know that? The number of questions I get from cis women about how much pain during sex is “normal.”
The majority of sex that people have over a lifetime is sex for pleasure, not for procreation. And as such, sex ed should focus more on pleasure.
How do you give a blow job? What’s “finger banging?” What are kinks? These are details that teenagers are dying to know. And, sure, the internet and its abundance of info is much more of a thing now than when I was a teen. But most people still want to get their information from a reliable source, rather than sort through search engine results.
Giving teens specific information about how certain sex acts are done or what different kinks are is controversial, I know. But just because we aren’t talking about it doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it, so why not properly prepare them for all the kinds of sex they might encounter?
4. Porn Education
Okay, so it’s not reasonable to expect that sex educators in the ‘90s could have predicted the porn explosion. But, oh man, don’t I wish they could have! The ubiquity of porn has undeniably changed the sexual landscape and education about what porn is — and what it isn’t — would have been invaluable to my generation. If nothing else, millions of roommates would have been subjected to less fake orgasm screaming.
But instead of porn education, we’re stuck with porn being education for so many people. And that’s just not working out, for anyone.
5. More Info About Queer Sex
My sex education did acknowledge that queer people have sex, but that was pretty much the extent of the LGBTQ inclusion. With a pretty strong focus on procreation, I guess that’s not surprising but it certainly left out a lot of sex that my classmates and I would go on to have.
Including queer sex not only helps queer kids know what to expect and how to advocate for themselves — which is important on its own, of course — but also makes non-queer kids better informed. And, hopefully, that increased information leads to more empathy. Hopefully.
6. More Info For People With Disabilities
By this point you might have realized that a lot of info about sex gets left out of sex ed — and that includes info that's inclusive of people with disabilities. I don’t remember learning anything at all about sex and disability as a kid.
To help tackle this discrepancy, AMAZE made a video for 10 to 14 year olds about misconceptions about people with disabilities and sex. It’s a great contribution to the sex ed conversation, and one that I hope will spark sex educators to make their lessons more inclusive.
7. A Redefinition Of “Sex”
Finally, I wish the sex ed I had as a teenager redefined sex away from "penis goes into vagina." That definition is reductive, heteronormative, and just not accurate. I believe that great sex ed talks about and acknowledges all kinds of sex, not just the kind that involves penetration by a penis.
Maybe I'm asking too much — I'm certainly known to be a dreamer — but I think it's possible that kids will some day have sex ed that includes all of these things. It'll probably be my grandkid's day — but, in the meantime, I'm happy to keep fighting to help us get there.