Growing up, my experience of sexuality education was of the abstinence-only variety. Not only did I find it ineffective in convincing my peers and me to abstain from sex, but I also found the messages of judgment and shame to be damaging to my understanding of sexuality.
The abstinence program at my middle school focused on the negative consequences of having sex before marriage rather than on benefits of abstinence or waiting to have sex. I distinctly remember one activity where all of the students spit into the same paper cup. We were told, ‘Having sex with someone, especially someone who has had other partners, is like drinking the cup of everyone’s spit and getting all of their germs.’ We didn’t talk about safer sex techniques to prevent pregnancy or STD transmission, or the reality that many of us would in fact have sex before marriage.
Interestingly, the topic of abstinence itself wasn’t really discussed. What does it mean to be abstinent? Does that mean masturbation is allowed, or not? How about oral sex? If the goal is to not put ourselves at risk for unwanted pregnancy or STDs, which behaviors are more risky than others? If the goal is to “save ourselves” for our spouses, where are we supposed to draw the line? Hand-holding? Behaviors where everyone keeps their clothes on? These questions were never answered.
When I reached high school, the sexuality education was more of the same. A motivational speaker came to school to tell us that remaining abstinent until marriage was the only healthy choice a person could make. He used sexist, outdated stereotypes and misinformation, including:
• only men actually desire sexual activity, while women allow themselves to be used for sex in an attempt to gain love
• men (and only men) will always pressure their partners into sex
• pre-marital sex inevitably makes you feel ashamed, dirty, and worthless
What we really needed to know, is that in reality, people’s motivations to engage in sex are complex – and by the way, women want sex just as much as men do and men want love just as much as women. Both men and women have been known to pressure their partners into engaging in activity their partners may not be ready for. To imply only men do this creates a dangerous assumption among students that men cannot be victimized; it also entirely excludes same-sex couples from the conversation. Further, there are many young couples who choose to have sex not because of peer pressure or coercion, but because they both want to have sex. The truth is that many people find a sexual relationship empowering, fulfilling and healthy, but we were never shown this side of the story.
In addition to this pessimistic view of sexuality and relationships, we were given patently false information about reproductive health and safer sex. Rather than being instructed on how to effectively use condoms, we were simply told that condoms are not very effective. We were told that hormonal birth control is bad for our health; possible side effects were exaggerated. Statistics were twisted to suggest that birth control has a very high failure rate.
When I got to college, I signed up for a Human Sexuality class because I thought it would be fun, interesting, and maybe just a little bit risqué. After the first day my mind was blown. I had no idea how much information had been kept from me in my ‘abstinence-only’ education.
I soaked up the information like a sponge. I took another class, and then another. I took classes on sexual health, sexual diversity, gender roles, social regulation of sexual bodies, sexual orientation and gender identity – anything I could get my hands on. Eventually I earned a minor in Human Sexuality from my university. I became passionate about the need for comprehensive sexuality education for young people. That includes talking to young people about sexuality being a part of their whole self – the social and emotional aspects as well as the anatomy between their legs.
So, why do I teach sexuality education? I do it so that rather than being scared into not having sex using fear tactics, which doesn’t actually work to prevent sex from happening anyway, young people will learn to explore their own values and learn how to make responsible decisions for themselves. I do it so that I can help young people to feel empowered rather than ashamed by their sexuality. To help them to stand up for themselves and make their own choices, rather than lecturing to them about what they should do.
I teach sexuality education so that young people won’t be shamed into thinking sex is dirty and immoral, and instead, will learn about sexuality as being a natural, healthy, positive part of being a human being.
Diane Pike, Northwest Indiana SARPHE Educator