Two things are abundantly clear: 1) sex education matters, and 2) teaching teenagers that sex is shameful messes everything up.
The statistics are glaring. More pragmatic approaches to teenage sexuality (i.e., “Hey, you’re going to do what you’re going to do, but here’s how to be responsible about it”) outperform strict abstinence/religious forms of sex education (i.e., “Don’t have sex until you’re married, or else”) by almost every statistical measurement including teenage pregnancies, abortions, and HIV infections. (By the way, the US is the worst offender in all of those categories.)
The recent government-funded “abstinence only” programs have been found to actually increase teen pregnancy and STI rates in states where they’re implemented, proving, yet again, that teenagers will always do exactly what you tell them not to and screw themselves up in the process.
Nope, purity rings don’t do a damn thing. Biology wants what biology wants. Yet, only 11 US states require sex education to be based on medical science and most other states require no sex education at all.
If I learned anything from being part of the dating advice industry for eight years, it’s that most young people are woefully unprepared, both socially and emotionally, to handle the stress and confusion that comes with navigating a healthy sex life.
Here are seven things we should have learned as teenagers, but didn’t:
1. There’s more to sex than biology
Sex education, as it stands today, is more or less diagram after diagram of the biological ins and outs of human reproductive behavior. It’s a bodily fluid road map, a glorified anatomy class, with an “Oh yeah, and use protection!” tacked on for good measure.
Don’t get me wrong—some of this information is useful. We do need to know how infections occur, how pregnancy works, and, of course, where to stick it in. But never in the heat of passion have I ever thought about my vas deferens or the quality of her uterine lining. It just never seems that relevant in the moment.
Humans are uniquely sexual creatures. We screw each other far more often and in far more elaborate ways than pretty much every other species on the planet.
That’s because for humans sexual activity is more than a mere biological urge, it has psychological significance and social meaning. We have sex for pleasure. We have sex for recreation. We have sex for passion. We have sex for revenge. We have sex with nice people and mean people, friends and enemies, sexy people and ugly people. We have sex because we’re happy and because we’re sad. We have sex because we’re bored. We have sex because we feel alone. We have sex because we’re in love.
And yes, we have sex to make babies, too. Although in the developed world, that’s rarely the primary motivation these days. So why is that all sex education focuses on?
Sex ed should account for the recreational, social, and emotional reasons for sex—and their consequences. It should discuss the interpersonal meaning of intercourse, setting clear expectations and boundaries, communicating desires, dealing with feelings of shame and awkwardness, and of course, being responsible about protection and privacy.
Sex can be amazing. Some of the best moments of one’s life can happen engorged in someone else. So let’s talk about it.
This sounds so obvious when you say it. Yet no one seems to say it.
2. How to respect personal boundaries
At the beginning of the year, I wrote a lengthy description about the sexual shame that goes on in our culture and how it causes men and women to hide their intentions and desires from one another, which then leads to all sorts of communication breakdowns (or worse) later on in the interaction.
A huge component of this is consent. Consent in sexual situations is usually taught as, “If a woman says no, it means no.” That’s nice, but it completely glosses over the complexity of the issue. It continues to frame sex in a “Women get to decide, you have to convince them,” perspective. This reinforces the perception that men must somehow prove themselves to women and women must somehow be “won over” by a man to have sex with him.
This isn’t consent, it’s mutually reinforced manipulation. (For a deeper explanation, check out: “How Disney Ruined Sex for Everybody.”)
Sexual intentions and desires should be stated clearly from the get-go by both parties. And I don’t just mean, “I want to have sex with you,” but every step of the way. “I’m attracted to you, I want to go out with you,” “I want to go home with you,” and so on. Kids should be taught that there’s nothing shameful about saying “yes” or “no,” and that they should not be ashamed nor shame someone else for saying either. This is regardless of gender, orientation, or reason.
All personal desires are valid just as all rejections of personal desires by another are valid. Both should be respected. It’s as simple as that.
3. Sex is not a reflection of your value as a person
But to get to this place, sex must be removed from its pedestal as an badge of either honor or shame in our culture. As long as boys are shamed for not succeeding in getting laid and girls are shamed for succeeding in getting laid too often, then boys will continue to have an incentive to manipulate girls into situations where consent is ambiguous and girls will continue to have an incentive to manipulative boys into situations where they feel unworthy or powerless.
Nobody wins in this arrangement. Everybody gets frustrated. People lie. Some people get raped. And it’s no coincidence that sexual violence and divorce are highest in countries where this culture of sexual shame persists. When your value as a human being is being judged based on the sex you’re having or not having or the marriage that you have or don’t have, then it’s easy to feel justified in saying and doing some messed up stuff to people of the opposite gender to get your way.
4. Different sexual orientations are natural
No-brainer here, but worth repeating for anybody still living in 1957. Homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, and pansexuality are natural and there’s nothing immoral about them (or experimenting with them, for that matter).
We now know that homosexuality is likely related to prenatal hormones and may possibly even have some sort of genetic basis. It’s natural. It’s seen all over the animal kingdom. It’s been cataloged throughout all of human history cross-culturally.
The concept of sexual orientation itself is a relatively recent invention of Western culture. And whoever came up with the idea deserves to be punched. Sexual orientation is a spectrum and people can oscillate across that spectrum over the course of their lives. It’s natural. So get over it.
5. Where the damn clitoris is and what it’s for
Seriously. Women like orgasms too. Come on!
6. How men and women experience sex differently
OK, this can get a little bit dicey. But there are a couple things which are true about male/female sexualities:
- Men and women have innate differences in how they experience their sexualities.
- These differences, despite existing, don’t really mean anything.
The truth is that trying to cram an ideology that everyone experiences sex exactly the same in all ways down people’s throats is just as shitty as forcing the ideology of conventional gender roles and stereotypes on everyone as well.
We know men and women are different. We know this from a wide range of neurological and psychological studies. We know from studying how gays and lesbians interact with one another. We know from primatology and the obvious sexual dimorphism of our species. And we know from the subjective accounts of transsexuals who use hormone replacement treatments.
That in and of itself should be taught in sex ed. But what should also be taught is how sex drives differ between men and women, how women are more sexually fluid in their desires, how men are more physical and visually oriented in arousal, and how, on average (across populations, across cultures, and in female-to-male transsexuals), they usually want to have sex more often and with a wider variety of partners.
There’s nothing inherently right or wrong with these differences, but it’s important to teach that these differences are not a moral justification for unethical behavior. If I’m born with big arms, that doesn’t give me the right to go punch people. And if a man is born with a high sex drive, that doesn’t give him a right to force himself on someone else.
7. Great relationships mean great sex
The thing many sex ed classes say about the dynamics of sexual relationships is, “Wait until you’re married,”—as if putting a ring on your finger will magically resolve all insecurities you may have around your sexuality.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t. It’s almost like a broken record how many people you hear lament that they wish they had dated around more before they got married (see: my parents).
But the point is that if sex ed classes can dry out teenage ears for months on end, going on about fallopian tubes, zygotes, and X and Y chromosomes, why can’t they push the scientific knowledge of romantic relationships on everyone as well? One could argue that’s even more important.
Yeah, that would have been helpful. Oh well…