Written by Kennedy Stevens
I distinctly remember the uncomfortable feeling that came when our phys-ed curriculum made way for its mandatory health unit in sixth grade. Even our teacher was notably squeamish in anticipation of the daunting task. He recognized that the lessons ahead would leave his students (and himself) incredibly uncomfortable, confused and more inclined to act inappropriately in class. The responsibility of teaching sex-ed is a great one; it may be the most important subject a teacher will teach. However, it is awarded very little attention given the amount of time we spend in school. Surely to understand the intricacies of our own bodies, the importance of consent and healthy relationships, the spectrum of gender and sexuality and the practice of safe sex are critical to our school curriculum. These notions are essentially non-negotiable for us as humans, yet we are denied a thorough understanding of them. It could be that the awkwardness felt among students and teachers leads to such a surface-level approach to sex-ed, or rather that the teachers themselves are not adequately equipped to take on the responsibility. Either way, it has caused a perpetual cycle of discomfort, depriving us of critical information and it must be fixed.
Sex-ed in the American school system varies widely. Shockingly, there are many states that don’t even require a sex-ed curriculum to be in place. Only about 50% of adolescents receive instruction on contraception before they first have sex and less than half of U.S. states require any education to be delivered on contraception or require sex and/or HIV education to be medically and factually accurate (Shapiro & Brown, 2018). Meanwhile, many states continue to stress abstinence as the only option and condone sexual activity exclusively within marriage (Shapiro & Brown, 2018). Very few states even address the topics of consent and healthy relationships in their curriculums (Shapiro & Brown, 2018). These statistics are incredibly alarming. Despite its low priority, a lack of comprehensive sex education presents many serious consequences; individuals are left unequipped to engage in healthy relationships, understand how to maintain and care for their own health, prevent unwanted pregnancy and gain bodily autonomy, or identify and prevent sexually abusive behavior. We believe that this information should be a right—not be a privilege—and by failing to enforce sex-ed in schools, many are being stripped of their right to embark safely into life’s experiences.
I realized over time that I was not adequately equipped to enter teenage and adulthood with the sex education I received, and after speaking with friends and family I discovered that many of them felt the same. At Honey, we believe providing education about sex, sexual health, healthy relationships, and consent at a young age is critical in taking a preventative approach to the culture of sexual abuse. Therefore, during this year’s back-to-school season we reflected on this formative period in our lives and invited our community to share their own experiences about the state of sex education inside and outside of the classroom and how it impacted their experiences with sex.
When we reached out to our community via social media to conduct a poll, the results revealed that 90% of audience respondents felt as though they did not receive adequate sex education during their time in school and 45% did not receive any sex education in middle school, nor in high school for 36%. Most respondents, as a result, received the bulk of their sex education from friends, the internet, or personal experience. Further, the overwhelming majority noted that their sex-ed focused mostly on puberty, anatomy, STDs, and abstinence. Among educational inaccuracies shared were that sex should be painful, masturbation and sex are wrong, abstinence is the only option, having sex leads to contracting an STD, sex is only acceptable during marriage, and that consent will always be a conversation amongst partners, none of which are altogether true. Many shared that missing from their experience was more comprehensive education on the meaning and importance of consent, the emotional significance of sex and relationships, birth control, body awareness and pleasure, and more inclusive rhetoric on the LGBTQA+ experience. Unfortunately, these gaps have consequences that affect us in our lives beyond the classroom. Those in our community felt unequipped to grasp the psychological consequences of engaging in a sexual relationship due to their lack of education. Others did not fully understand consent, and therefore were unable to recognize sexual abuse. Some felt a lack of bodily awareness and discomfort towards sex, leading to extreme feelings of shame and anxiety.
These critical gaps in our sex education system are part of the reason why we, at Honey, share stories about sex, consent, sexual assault, and mental health. Rather than allowing this issue to perpetuate for future generations, we would like to find a way for people of all ages to receive the education many of us gravely missed out on. Luckily, in today’s sharing economy, there are other social change-minded resources online, as well as in books and research papers at your local libraries that safely and effectively provide sex education outside of the classroom. Organizations and online platforms such as @plannedparenthood, @duvet_days, @thisisloom, @thevaginablog, @bloodmilkwomen, @allbodieshealth, and @sexpositive_families provide accessible education on sexual health, puberty, gender, body positivity, healthy relationships, anatomy, and more. If formal educational institutions will not take action, it’s important to know that there are alternative resources to keep you safe and informed. It’s evident that a great deal of work is yet to be done, however, by sharing their stories, we are confident that the Honey community has contributed to improving the dialogue around sex education and creating a safe space for others to share their own experiences.
We hope the #BacktoSchoolWithHoney series revealed that no one is alone in feeling that their sex education was inadequate or unsatisfying. We hope you know that there will always be space here to share your thoughts and ask questions. Removing the barriers that impede our conversations about sex is an important step toward filling the gaps in sex-ed, and we truly value the honesty and support we have received as we take a step in the right direction.
Shapiro, S., & Brown, C. (2018, May 9). Sex Education Standards Across the States. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/reports/2018/05/09/450158/sex-education-standards-across-states/.