21 Years of Sex-Ed: What I Learned (And Didn’t)
I wish I remembered more details of my first sex-ed class, in fifth grade.
I do remember that girls were sent into one room, boys into another.
I can’t say what the boys learned about.
We heard words like “breasts” and “boobs,” and mostly just a lot of information about periods.
The summer after, my cousin informed me of the rules leading up to sex—what each base signifies. I knew first and second. Third—a blow job.
“It sounds gross, but it’s really not that bad.”
“It’s only scary the first time.”
I was filled with revulsion, and dread. At what I would have to do when I grew up, too.
I was not told, and wouldn’t know for many years, that third base can actually apply to a girl, too—that a boy can actually give a girl something.
This was perhaps more unsightly of an idea to me than what I would have to do to a boy.
In middle school, at my all-girls school, we learned about both male and female anatomy.
A lot more about periods. Not much about sex.
I remember specific details about erections and ejaculation.
How boys masturbate.
This was a pivotal part of boys’ puberty, we were told.
I didn’t bother wondering if girls experienced some equivalent.
The word orgasm did not enter my radar until late into high school, and even then, it was a vague concept with undertones of forbiddenness. I’m not sure if it was because we didn’t quite know what it was, or how common they were, or if we simply didn’t have access to that.
A year later, when my friends and I were no more mature, we were staying up late at a sleepover, watching a movie called “Dinner for Schmucks.”
In one particularly inappropriate and hilarious scene, the word “clitoris” is repeatedly shouted.
My friends and I are baffled. What is that? It’s still considered “cool” to know bad words, which we assume it must be.
“I dare you to ask our health teacher,” my friend says.
We’re 13, and love to create awkward moments so that we can laugh incessantly together. So I agree. I ask her in class. The teacher is flustered, impatient. It’s not relevant to our current discussion about the importance of condoms.
Years later, I still don’t really understand what it is.
My catholic school was obligated, I suppose, to lecture us on the importance of chastity.
Pregnancy. STDs. These are the biggest crimes and the strongest source of shame.
We were never given the tools to understand or appreciate our own bodies (but why would we want to enjoy our own bodies in their eyes, I guess?)--only the dangers of what could happen if we used them improperly.
And so our sexual organs became places of extreme caution, and of shame.
My sophomore year, we took a self-defense class called PREPARE.
A man would dress up with obscene padding and we would engage in hypothetical situations of violence. Each girl would stand in front of the entire class and practice shouting in the man’s face, kneeing him in the groin, and poking him in the eye.
It immediately became more of a humorous activity than a meaningful one. I was instructed to shout “NO!” in a strange man’s face, and I had no idea why. What was I defending myself against? Who was going to threaten me?
The word rape was never mentioned.
Looking back, I see that there was an intention to help us young girls to use our voices, to scream when we need to. But if anything, I was humiliated (as were the other introverted girls in my class). I didn’t know how to use my voice. I didn’t know why I would need to use my voice, why I would need to scream in defense of my own body.
The word rape is all I hear. I begin to learn that it is not a girl’s fault for dressing or acting a certain way. That alcohol can’t be used as a justification. I learn this myself, though, through conversations with friends. No thanks to my education.
Only now do my friends and I talk about the taboo, dirty words that were so blatantly removed from my childhood and high school experience. Words like rape and orgasm. The idea that girls should extract pleasure from sex, and that sex is not just about pleasuring your partner.
No one ever taught us these things. We’ve learned from the world around us, from other people taking a stance against centuries of injustice towards women, against a sex culture dominated by men.
College is different from high school, because I realize that my most valuable teachers are my classmates and friends. I no longer passively listen to someone tell me what appropriate sex should look like, and why rape is bad. I see it firsthand.
Where to Now?
Sexual education, I’ve realized, should be less of a lesson dictated by a strict curriculum. Yes, certain things should be modified-- young girls should learn that they, too, are capable of feeling pleasure, and that they should never accept anything less than outright respect. But at the same time, no class can fully prepare you for the endless, unpredictable tornado of violations that young women face everyday. This tornado can’t merely be reduced to a class.
I’ve learned to relish the conversations I can have with my friends as we try to make sense of the chaos around us, particularly on college campuses. It is in these small groups that we are able to be productive-- to support and nourish one another with love, but also to unpack even the smallest acts of sexual violence.
Sex-ed wasn’t enough in elementary school, nor in high school. But how could it be? We’re constantly learning what makes us feel comfortable and what doesn’t, and how to stand up for our feelings of shame and inadequacy that seem so deeply entwined with womanhood. We can learn best from each other, from those always around us. It is this sense of solidarity that deeply transcends the capacity of any sex-ed class.