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(Craig Campbell)– The first time I heard the word “sex” was a couple of years before my first day of sex ed. As I was riding in the car with my mom, NPR delivered a story about men and sex. Despite her attempts to quickly change the station, I was relentless: “Mom what is ‘having sex’?” I asked with innocent curiosity. I’ll tell you when you’re older, she replied, making the elusive definition infinitely more seductive. “… BUT I WANT TO KNOW NOW!” After pleading with her to let me in on the irresistible secret, she turned and bluntly informed me that sex is what happens when a man puts his penis in a woman’s vagina. End of story.
Sex Ed begins in my school district in the fourth grade. Each 8 and 9 year-old must deliver a signed permission slip to the teacher in order to participate in the week of gender-segregated activities. Those first few weeks of Sex Ed weren’t limited to the “where babies come from” narrative. We learned about our developing bodies: puberty, armpit hair, and acne. We were reminded not to get into cars with strangers. We were told not to do drugs, but back then, “drugs” were limited to cigarettes and booze.
In later years of the program, we moved through more “mature” concepts. We learned that contraception existed in the form of a mystical piece of rubber called a “condom.” We were taught that girls menstruate, boys ejaculate, and that rape happens, sometimes.
Much more interesting, though, is the information deliberately kept from us. The actual act of sex was never described. We knew where the penis went, and that sperm + egg = baby. But we weren’t told the gritty details of what happened in between – the fact of “thrusting” was left for us to discover for ourselves on the Internet while our parents were at work. But in class, we didn’t even talk about porn or masturbation!
Although we were told about condoms and the pill, our district insisted on abstinence-only education. We never saw what these legitimately responsible prevention methods looked like or how they are used. I guess school administrators just assumed we would all try it at home.
We watched videos of rape survivors who narrated their horror stories of being abducted by strangers and dragged into dark alleys. Date rape, we learned, was what happened when some awkward teenage boy fed a girl GHB because he thought she wanted it. We never conducted any meaningful dialogue about sexual assault. As it was rendered for us, the world of unwanted physical contact was limited to a semi-creepy tickler decked out in 90s swag.
At the end of every session, the teacher would pass a small piece of paper to each student on which we could anonymously submit any questions we were too embarrassed to ask aloud. In sixth grade, our instructor opened one and read “Is it okay to be gay?” He looked at the class with a irritated disappointment in his eyes and angrily grumbled, “Come on boys, don’t mess around like that.” And that was the end of that.
Gay subjects were strictly off-limits. (Again, someone probably thought we’d try it at home if we thought it was okay.) Our high school Health teacher explained to us on the very first day of class that there indeed are gay people living among us. Some of them even have sex (!!) but that the powers-that-be behind our curriculum absolutely banned any discussion of homosexuality, and that he would not be answering any questions about it during the course. We devoted an entire week to the AIDS epidemic, but during those five days discussing the HIV virus, our teacher never once mentioned that the disease plagued gay men in particular. I remember reading a headline on CNN Health stating that 50% of newly diagnosed HIV infections were found in women. Well why shouldn’t they be? Half of the people in the world are women. They were so afraid of the “gay” word that they wouldn’t even acknowledge the darker side of the gay community.
When I was in 7th grade my parents caught me searching porn, which as we all know is a completely normal part of life as a 12-year old. But this was gay porn, and I had no idea that what I was doing was natural sexual exploration, especially considering that I had learned absolutely nothing about my burgeoning sexuality at school. The problem was that neither my parents nor my school had any idea that this was normal. So I was taught by my community that gay sex, even behind the safe distance of a computer screen, was a very, very bad thing. And like most things I was told at that age, I believed it.
Tips for spotting the wicked homosexual: “he might appear normal.”
The videos we watched in Sex Ed were reductive, not deceiving; they briefly outlined a problem that was easy to portray as a big, scary problem. I remember filling out a video worksheet on the infamous Oprah episode that explained how taking Ecstasy basically drills holes in your brain. Those holes, the Oprah Show later clarified, did not indicate any brain damage and were completely unrelated to drug use. Despite the correction, we were still lead to believe that anyone who takes MDMA is deliberately setting a blowtorch to his cortex.
Each video follows a predictable, easily comprehendible narrative. Sarah has sex one time, gets gonorrhea and ruins her life because now there’s a baby on the way. Blake smoked weed once, and now his short-term memory is shot forever. Tina, the chubby Asian, wanted to lose weight and stopped eating for a day; she passes out later at the mall, and then proceeds to show us which facewash clears up her acne the best.
Meanwhile, sitting in the classroom, several undernourished classmates with actual eating issues stared blankly at the TV. Tina is not the face of anorexia. She showed us that a problem existed, but not what it actually looks like. Mental health was not a subject we discussed in “Health Ed” – depression was something that the emo kids who skipped class whined about. The reality that inspired these videos was not the reality that was presented to us. In real life, you have sex a few times, don’t get pregnant, and decide that school lied to you and that casual sex is okay. Similar story: you smoke weed a few times, realize that when you’re high your head doesn’t actually fall off, and decide that The Man is trying to keep you down and that no amount of drug use can harm you.
I don’t know if most schools take this approach to Sex Ed. But the program at my school gives students unrealistic ideas of sex, drugs, and relationships that stay with many of them through college. When porn is our go-to resource for learning how to have sex, “dirty whore” is a term of endearment. Men are unsympathetic to sexual assault victims because they don’t believe rape happens college campuses. These misconceptions begin at a young age when our attitudes are most malleable. So instead, teach kids that not only does contraception exist, this is how you use it. Gay people exist, and they’re not so different from straight people. Rape happens, all the time.
Regardless of setting, there are those kids who are always going to break the rules. The rules themselves are irrelevant; it’s all about the thrill of taking the first bite out of the forbidden apple. So instead of a puritanical, abstinence-only approach, sex-educators need to stop proselytizing and present facts. Because saying “no” with no exceptions is just daring kids to try.