By Clarissa Speyer-Stock
CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)
For many teens, sex education provides necessary information for making safe decisions, while helping them understand their own bodies and sexuality. However, for others it can have adverse effects that can lead them towards unhealthy decisions, low self-esteem, and warped ideals of sexual relationships. In America, only 22 states require sex education of any kind and only 13 of those states require the information to be medically accurate. In an article in the New York Times on Julie Metzger, a sex educator and activist, who has been trying for nearly thirty years to find a way to engage and educate pre-teens and teens on health and sex ed, the writers enumerate the issues and questions prepubescents face while growing up.
Her course, “For Girls Only,” provides comprehensive sex education for teen girls. During her presentation, she answers questions from the crowd ranging from “Is it okay to be gay?” to “What is oral sex?” In addition, the audience asks questions such as, “Is it okay to have sex before marriage?” “How long should I wait to have sex? I’m excited!” and lastly, “Will this go well for me?” All of which are worthy questions from a group of curious pre-teen girls with varying knowledge of sex and healthy relationships.
In a study conducted by Laura Lindberg, a Principal Research Scientist, focusing on the effects of sex education in young teens, they determined that it is important that pre-teens and teenagers receive sex education that is as accurate and unbiased as possible.
“Sex education is important to teens’ healthy development,” explained Lindberg. “It should cover a wide range of topics, including both how to delay first sex and how to use contraceptives, and should be reinforced over the course of young people’s development. Reaching teens with comprehensive information before they have sex should be a key goal.”
They found that sex education is integral during the formative years of puberty and sexual awakening. However, this can be hard to grasp with different opinions on what comprehensive, unbiased, and nurturing sex education entails.
Unfortunately, not many parents or educators want to have a conversation about sex with adolescents, and teens do not want to listen. I can still remember the distinct tension that filled the air during a fifth-grade sex ed class. The familiar uncomfortable feeling of watching“Shakespeare in Love” or any other film in which sex or nudity takes place, and trying really hard not to make any eye contact with my parents.
Even with no one wanting to talk about sex, contrary to what the Salt N Peppa song would imply, there isn’t a set curriculum within sex education nationally. Many U.S. schools create their own versions of sex education, ranging from in-depth courses complete with ideas of virginity, homosexuality, sex acts, contraceptives, and STIs (sexually transmitted infections), to abstinence-only education.
Despite the many problems with sex education and abstinence only education, the immediate issue within sex education is sexism that can make girls feel ashamed, or not valued.
One of the most resonating questions that must be addressed during sex education is what is virginity? As a LaGuardia Community College answered it in the documentary “How To Lose Your Virginity”, a virgin is someone who has not engaged in sex. But then what is sex? Some students said masturbation or any form of lust, some said traditional ideas of intercourse (ie. vaginal), and some said oral sex, or anal sex.
The main point of the film is that there is obviously no true idea of virginity. Virginity was once used to commodify women; because women were property, virginity was a bonus like having an extra bathroom or finished basement, which is why female virginity has remained so much more important than male virginity.
This culture of unfairly dramatizing female virginity is why young girls are often coerced into signing virginity pledges, in which their fathers become the “protectors of their virginity” until marriage.
But in modern times, virginity is a varied idea and everyone has their own definition. Some girls questioned in the movie if rape was considered “losing your virginity”. And some wonder if sex between two women counts as “losing your virginity” since it is technically “third base”.
One of the most important questions in sex education is “what is sex?”. I asked some people ranging from the Catlin Gabel community to outside in public and private schools around Portland and the greater area. Mainly the questions included what is sex? and what is virginity?
Emma Connelly, a St. Mary’s Academy student, said, “I feel like I never got a real sex education. No idea of sex was presented to me so I came up with my own through my own thoughts and research. Basically sex ed for me was looking at the pussiest, yellowish, most cauliflowered penis with an STI, it was mainly fear tactics”
A sophomore at PCC responded laughing, “Sex is anything you can get a disease from.”
A Catlin Gabel student that wished to remain anonymous said, “I define sex as a connection. Originally in the time of Adam and Eve it was penis in vagina. Now it has changed to sharing something. Sharing your body and emotions. One night stands are a time of giving your body fully to someone else. I think you can lose your virginity with a person of the same sex. But I also feel like someone has control over whether or not they had sex/lost their virginity”
Another said, “I think sexuality plays a big part in the way sex is ‘defined’. I believe that there isn’t one specific definition, because sexuality is so fluid and broad that there are many different ways to engage in ‘sexual activity’. How you define sex should be up to you, and not just what’s written in a dictionary.”
But with the education system there can be sexism trapped within sex education. For example, Pam Stenzel, a preacher and founder of Enlighten Communications, an abstinence-only organization, presents a philosophy that is caked in sexism. She yells at her audience members about the dangers of STIs and teen pregnancy, reminiscent of a scared straight program.
Her point is that both boys and girls should remain abstinent until marriage, but her reasoning for boys is more about being abstinent so a nice sweet virgin girl will want to marry them, rather than for moral or safety reasons. The idea is “you get what you are”.
Shelly Donahue also speaks on abstinence education for the WAIT Training program. She would compare girls to a piece of tape and would stick it on many different boys arms. The more boys she clung the tape to the less sticky it got, and then she asked the crowd, “Who would want a piece of tape that doesn’t stick?”
Slut shaming is very present in the abstinence-only education, almost as if it’s used as a scare tactic, playing into ancient and sexist ideas of virginity as if it is a commodity.
Within sex education, slut shaming is never effective, and must be immediately shut down. On the Catlin Gabel campus, when learning about sex education, we learned about sex and the idea that if one has sex, they are almost having sex with the other people that person has slept with. Though originally something that was supposed teach about STIs, it quickly brought on a discussion of slut shaming outside the classroom. I and many peers heard the famous saying, “You want a key that opens any lock right? But who wants a lock that can be opened with any key.”
Another issue regarding sexism in sex education is the false information provided for many young girls, such as the vicious, long-believed myth that virginity is precious and that it is physically painful to lose.
The breaking of the hymen (membrane at opening of vagina, referred to as “popping your cherry”) does not always occur. Although the hymen is typically depicted as a fully-formed layer of tissue that is “broken” after one’s first sexual encounter, in reality it is a thin membrane that stretches as a result of even the simplest athletic activities, such as walking. As a result of this, by the time many women “lose their virginity,” their hymen is not breaking and causing them pain, but rather other parts of their vaginal tissue are bleeding because of hurried and rough intercourse. However, this this idea of pain when one loses their virginity, and the hymen being a representation of virginity, has remained pervasive. Additionally, it gives men power in sexual situations, or when losing their virginity, because women are expected to be bloody and in pain, whereas men are expected to suffer no side effects.
Lastly, the “bases” ideology that has always been popular in media brings explains that you can only go forward and never back in sexual interactions (which brings issues with consent). Alongside this exists the idea of “stealing home base” or “going all the way,” making rape or sexual pressure appear as a good thing.
The issues in sex education have left many individuals misinformed and with warped views of what sex entails. In addition to the unfair standards being taught in the classroom, the main issue is that girls are being held to such an outdated and sexist standard perpetuated by abstinence-only education, that neither helps nor nurtures anyone.
Despite the present issues, there is a solution to be found. Sex education curriculums should be focused on creating a nurturing and safe environment free of sexism or pervasive myths. In addition, there should be an equally high standard for sex education curriculums across the U.S., particularly in regards to their medical accuracy, in order to create a realistic idea of what sex is for teens and young adults.