There were many things that the school that I attended from the mid 90s to early 00s did well. Sex education was not one of them. The midwestern community that I lived in was rural, religious and conservative and the powers that be had determined that the best thing they could teach teenagers about sex is how dangerous it was so we wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Even if the curriculum they chose for us had to lie to convince us to remain or to become abstinent.
A few highlights from my adventures in abstinence-only sex education as a young teen:
Pet Your Dog, Not Your Date
This is the workbook page that stands out the most in my memory. The point being, sublimate your erotic energy into strengthening your emotional bonds, not substitute your pet for your significant other. (er, I hope.)
I’ve never actually figured out why this phrase ever saw the light of day. It’s ripe for mis-interpretation and doesn’t address any practical methods for understanding or coming to accept one’s emerging sexuality.
Holes too tiny to see with the naked eye, they argued, but large enough for the AIDS virus and sperm to sneak through could be found in every condom available for sale. There was a drawing in our textbook of sperm swimming through holes in a condom. Other forms of birth control were mentioned briefly as well, but only to point out their failure rates and the potential side effects of each type of contraception. Even sterilization, we were warned, could fail to prevent a pregnancy. And no form of birth control could protect our hearts.
Men Want Sex, Women Want Romance
(un)Remarkably, at least for that time and place, the exercises we were to consider virtually always involved the myriad of ways in which a teenage girl could say no to sex with her would-be (male) suitor. Rarely a teenage male protagonist would ponder how to preserve his manliness without having sex with his lady-friend. In either scenario, though, it was assumed that one member of the (always heterosexual) couple yearned for sex from the depths of their loins, the other member of the couple wasn’t ready and that each of them would always assume the same role in that aspect of their relationship.
Here’s the thing: I felt something was wrong from the very beginning of this class and the condom hole mythlead me to assume that everything they said about sex was a lie.Other than the basic physiology of the reproductive organs and a few other simple biological facts, I’ve rejected everything they taught us. Women are not responsible for the sexual urges of other people. Sex is not the only thing men think about. Not everyone grows up to be heterosexual. Having sex has nothing at all to do with whether you’re a decent human being.
I shudder whenever I hear about current middle or high school student being taught about abstinence even though I tend to agree that the majority of teenagers are not emotionally or socially prepared to handle the possibility of pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection. (Of course, I’ve also known people who were 30, 40, 50 years old and still nowhere near being ready to accept the consequences of their actions, sexual or otherwise.)
To be fair, there are some valuable lessons I learned from my abstinence-only sex education.
- Don’t lie. It erodes the trust of others.
- Exaggerating, manipulating or massaging the truth is worse than lying because it is so easily passed down to the next generation. This is how urban legends and myths are created.
- Stereotypes are as destructive to the people who fit into them as they are to the people who do not.
- Prepare for the worst but never assume that it’s the only possible (or most likely) outcome.
- Ultimately, each one of us can only be held responsible for what we do or say as individuals. I’m not responsible for your actions or thoughts, you’re equally not responsible for mine.