If I live to be 100, I will probably never forget my public-school sex-education experience.
That’s because it lasted about 50 minutes and taught me nothing I didn’t already know.
I went to a small junior/senior high school in Indiana, and our eighth-grade course schedule in 1985-86 was very basic. We were all required to take English, math, science, social studies and physical education each semester, and we were required to select one fine arts course, from a menu of art, choir and band.
We were also each required, regardless of gender, to take one semester of industrial arts and one semester of home economics, though we were allowed to decide which of those courses to take first. I opted to take home ec first, because I knew that most of the boys, and a handful of the more mechanically inclined girls, would opt for the shop course first. I had never been mechanically inclined, and I didn’t want my ineptitude on display for the other boys. Equally importantly, I knew that most of the girls—and primarily the best-looking ones—would take home ec first, and I would have the pleasure of their company, in competition with relatively few boys.
Most of my home-ec experience was what you would expect of a 12-year-old male with no particular homemaking skills. I learned the basics of a sewing machine (and created a pair of sweatpants with one leg significantly longer than the other and a large hole in the crotch). I burned spaghetti. And I really liked my teacher, Mrs. W., an extremely personable, funny, good-humored young woman who happened to be married to another one of my favorite teachers. I run into her once every few years, and I understand that she still tells her classes about my sweatpants, nearly 30 years later.
But there was one day that stood out: the day when I was called upon to teach the other boys in the class the basics of our male reproductive systems.
Mrs. W. opened class that day by telling all of us that we would be learning about our systems. And she had all four boys in the class sit at one table, apart from the girls. Knowing Mrs. W. as I do, I have to assume that this arrangement was prescribed; I am certain she would have done it differently, and much better, had she been left to her own devices.
She then distributed to the four of us boys a photocopied diagram of our male parts. I was a precocious child and already well-acquainted with these basics from my many hours of absorbing every bit of information about sex I could get my hands on. I was also a cocky know-it-all in 1985, and I boasted, upon receiving the diagram, that I could name all the parts (which was quite true; I knew all the girl parts, too).
Mrs. W. smiled enthusiastically and—possibly with an eye toward curing me of my boundless enthusiasm for displaying my own brilliance, which had made me the bane of her husband’s existence in my seventh-grade geography class the previous year—informed me that I could instruct the other boys while she went and talked to the girls about their feminine parts.
Well, you can imagine what happened next—which is to say nothing happened, because I was 12 years old and far too embarrassed to take on the role of sex-education instructor. (If you’ve ever seen the delightful cinematic classic Porky’s, think of when the principal stumblingly attempted to discuss “p-p-private par- par- parts” and ultimately settled on “tallywhacker” because “‘p-p-penis’ is so … p-p-personal.”) I don’t recall if Mrs. W. eventually filled in the boys on the requisite information. All I can tell you for sure is that we never had another day of instruction on anything resembling sex for the remainder of our years of formal education.
In short: twelve years of education in my public school district, and our entire sex-education experience came down to one, 50-minute class period in eighth grade in which we were taught what our parts were, but nothing about how to use them responsibly, or even how they interacted with those of our female counterparts.
I was reminded of this experience today when I read a story on Facebook about a woman whose sister had a sex-education lecture in one of her public high school classes recently—delivered by a Catholic nun, who informed them that birth-control pills would give them cancer and render them infertile, and that condoms did nothing to prevent the passage of disease! (I don’t know if she got to the part about how boys will go blind and grow hair on their palms if they engage in “self abuse.” But maybe she left that old chestnut out, because I think it’s well-understood that if this were true, there would be about 150 million blind American men with very furry handshakes.)
That story reminded me once again that, just as foreseen in Orwell’s 1984, sex really is political. It sure as hell shouldn’t be, but it is. And just like seemingly everything else these days, the responsible teaching of sexual education to young people who are, statistically speaking, probably going to need it before they leave high school is being held hostage by conservatives who, it seems, want to repeal the entire 20th century. They demand that we teach youngsters nothing about sex except that it is bad, bad, bad; that preventive measures don’t prevent pregnancy or disease (despite mountains of statistical evidence to the contrary); and they should never, ever do it until they marry.
The utter lack of reality here should be obvious to anyone who has attended high school. In short, whether we adults like it or not, teenagers have a funny way of deciding for themselves about getting it on. On average, most Americans first have intercourse sometime between the ages of 16 and 18—which, for most people, means their junior or senior year in high school. Our choice, as adults, is either to arm them with as much information as possible to keep them from getting an unwanted disease or pregnancy—or bury our heads in the sand and pretend that if we just don’t talk about it, why, surely, they just won’t do it. (Because, yeah, that works. Ask any pregnant teenager.)
Whoever invited the nun to discuss sex with high-school students had to know what they were getting. She’s a Catholic nun—it’s a pretty good bet she’s not going to endorse contraception, and may even lie about it, as happened in the aforementioned case. In short, whoever made that call made a decision in line with the conservative political agenda, which, in a word, boils down to this: NO.
But “NO” doesn’t help when teenagers have been saying “YES, YES, YES!” from the dawn of time. Sex between unmarried teenagers didn’t just start with the sexual revolution and the onset of widely accessible contraception or abortion services. How many girls in the 1950s went to “live with their aunt and uncle in the country” for a year?
This blog post has been coming on for some time. I first considered writing on this topic a few months ago, when I went to a nearby drug store to procure condoms, and I had to search the entire store before finally stumbling on them, tucked away, unmarked, I suppose so they would give nobody any unnecessary offense. And it struck me that we, as a society, are so uneasy about discussing sex and contraception that some drug stores won’t even put up decent signage directing people to the euphemistically styled “family planning” section. It’s ridiculous and, frankly, childish. What’s next—an over-the-counter gel treatment for cooties?
If we want our society’s young people to behave with sexual responsibility, it might help if American adults can stop acting like embarrassed, nervously giggling children when it comes to sex. We need to put a stop to a harmful, politically driven abstinence agenda that’s about as realistic as Santa Claus mating with the Easter Bunny. And most of all, we need to get over this silly discomfort over having mature discussions about the proper, responsible usage of vaginas and penises.
I’m sorry—I meant “p-p-private par- par- parts.”