By Colleen King
Here in Louisiana, there are few conversational topics that cause such immediate discomfort as sex. Our inability to talk about the pleasure-and/or-life-giving act leads to strange euphemisms, uncomfortable family dinners, and embarrassing questions.
Since sexuality education is not enforced in most U.S. schools more and more adolescents are educated in religion or health classes, or – perhaps even more startlingly – by the Internet or life experience. People have been doing it since we evolved genitalia, so why are our 2015 attitudes still so Victorian? To get to the bottom of this, DIG sent out the call to hear about your awkward moments from the class everyone dreads:
TOP TEN SEX ED MOMENTS
- Awful Analogies: “We had a ‘Teen Sexuality’ section in our high school freshman Religion class. Our teacher kicked off the section by telling us that ‘Women… women are like crock pots—they need a while to simmer and warm up. But men… men are like microwaves — stick it in and ‘ding’ they’re done!’”
- Disastrous diagrams #1: “ A diagram of a layer cake was used to describe the phases of courtship. It was told to us like this: ‘The bottom layer- that’s friendship. The middle layer is engagement. The third layer is marriage- the tippy top, most ultimate place your relationship can get to. And the icing, that’s sex!’ The only oversight was that the cake in the diagram was iced on all three layers. Oops!”
- Disastrous diagrams #2: “When I was 11 we had a sex education week in school. One of the tasks was to take a set of words and put it into a gender Venn diagram. We got to a word I didn’t know: scrotum. Being the loud-mouth of the group I asked the (young male) teacher. He described exactly what it was. I walked back to my group and quietly said “it’s male” and wouldn’t give any more details.”
- Outrageous outsourcing: “My high school outsourced its sex ed to a VHS series by Pam Stenzel. Pam Stenzel is hired to speak to teenagers about abstinence, the importance of choosing life (in case you don’t choose abstinence), and how to be a ‘respectful young woman’ – a.k.a. not lead men on with your clothes or actions.”
- Sickening sticky-tape: Among the exercises that preach abstinence, perhaps the most upsetting is the “sticky-tape” game. Participants pass a single piece of sticky tape around a class and put the tape on their arms, then pull it off. By the end of the exercise, the tape is so dirty it doesn’t stick to anything. The lesson is that the dirty tape is your STI-filled body, and since it won’t stick to anything, you can never have a successful marriage. This brand of slut-shaming is only trumped in grossness by its cousin “Spit Cup.” Google at your own risk.
- Teacher TMI: Sometimes teachers give too much of one kind of information, and not enough of another… “In my health class we talked about how my teacher’s wife got rid of their computer so he wouldn’t ‘do anything nasty on it.’ That’s all the stuff I know.”
- Hilarious hypotheticals: “My only real sex-ed class was a one-hour session in 7th grade. This consisted of handing envelopes to each student in class with an index card inside indicating a name. After this, our teacher told us who ‘had sex’ with whom in the class (very embarrassing for a bunch of 12 year olds). Then, we all turned our cards over to see which life-crippling STD we’d ended up with.”
- Mortified mom: “I took my daughter to a class at the hospital when she was coming ‘of the age.’ It was nice- in the lobby they had a little area set up with ice, cokes, and drinks. This nurse was in charge of putting on the talk, and she handed out bags full of items for her demonstration. One of the items was a tampon. To show the girls how the tampon worked, she walked over to the tub of drinks, took the tampon out, plunged it into the container of the beverages, then pulled it out like she was pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I leaned over to my daughter and said, ‘Okay, no more drinks for you.’ I could barely stop myself from laughing.”
- Maxi-pad mailer: “One day, a Maxi pad arrived in the mail (it was part of their ad campaign at the time). When I opened the letter, I had no idea what the pad was, so I asked my mother. That’s when she told me about everything- the birds and the bees, puberty, menstruation, etc. As forthcoming as she was with the information, my mother forgot to tell me about menopause. Later, I got my period while staying at my elderly grandmother’s house; I asked her for a Maxi pad and she replied, ‘What would I use it for, a band-aid?’”
- Barf-worthy birthing-videos: “They didn’t tell us which day they were going to show the birth video in class because otherwise no one would show up. On the video day, my teacher hit the lights and showed us an ancient VHS tape of a woman giving birth. At least two girls left the class to throw-up. It’s difficult not to have any warning for that kind of thing.”
From outdated birth videos in religion class to unhelpful diagrams extolling abstinence, sex education has clearly suffered from our overly conservative attitudes towards the subject. While the stories may tickle your funny bone, some say that sex ed is no laughing matter. DIG interviewed sex educator Dr. Mark Schoen, M.D. PhD.
Schoen is a sexuality education advocate, filmmaker, and also operates a web site “SexSmartFilms.com” that archives PSAs from around the world and has been called the “Netflix of Sex Education.” Schoen is a wellspring of knowledge on how successful sex ed can be, as shown by other countries with required programs. He brings up examples of PSAs from Norway, Spain, and the Netherlands that show sex so frankly they probably couldn’t get aired in the U.S. Perhaps the most extreme example is “The Genital Song” from Sweden. This video features an upbeat song with dancing cartoon vaginas and penises, and it’s aimed, no joke, at pre-schoolers. Schoen says that though the tactics may seem wild to us, exposure to sex ed from an early age means better health later in life. (Statistics show that Sweden’s HIV and teen pregnancy rates are much lower than in the U.S.) When asked about the U.S. emphasis on abstinence-only, Schoen replies: “Abstinence is a good and viable option, but it’s not the only option… We put countless amounts of money into abstinence only-education and we know it doesn’t work.” Schoen cites research that the average American encounters pornography by age 11, which means that porn is potentially many people’s first sex education. “We’ve been taught at an early age that sex is not something you’re supposed to talk about… If you ask children ‘What do you call your genitals?’ and you ask ten different children, you’ll get ten different names. We don’t do that with any other body part.”
In a country (and state, and city) where legislation to require sexuality education regularly fails, one wonders if we will ever get the resources we need to be a healthier, more informed society. In an informal survey, DIG found that 88 percent (of 83 total) responded “Yes” to the question, “Do you think sex education should be taught in public schools?” In order to live up to that “Yes”, hearts and minds will have to change so that sex becomes something we are all allowed to talk about.