For Freshmen. By Freshmen.
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Sep 14 2017
by Heidi Fliegelman

3 Ways That American Public Schools Can Improve Sex Ed

By Heidi Fliegelman - Sep 14 2017

I know, I know. I can already hear you whining, "But we’ve had years of health class with forced sex-ed classes since sixth grade! We even had to endure the painfully awkward puberty video in fifth grade! How much more can they drill into our heads the ideas that girls have periods and that abstinence is always the way to go?”

I know.

That’s exactly why I’m writing this. 

You might think you’ve learned enough just because you had a sex talk in health class (or with your parents, but not everyone has that opportunity), but how much of substance did you truly hear?

Within the first week of college, I sat through approximately five different meetings and presentations in which sex was discussed. We were informed of our university’s sexual misconduct policy and we had multiple discussions about consent. I am in no way complaining about this. If anything, I’m glad for it. Rape and other forms of misconduct are very real and I am so grateful that my university takes the time to make sure its students are making good decisions in that way.

What I do have a problem with is that we went through middle and high school where sex-ed classes consisted of witnessing (likely valid!) thoughts in the anonymous question box being skipped over, being told that STDs will occur if we have sex and receiving the overarching message that abstinence is ultimately the only way you can be safe. If we did decide to do anything (which, of course, we shouldn't) we were told to use condoms, but were never showed how, nor told where to find them. 

How did we go from pretending sex and everything surrounding it just doesn't exist and is bad, to now being in a place where the idea that it’s going to happen is accepted, we just need to not force it and communicate? That jump in understanding seems huge to me.

I loved high school. Adored it, you could say. Despite the early wake-up time, I looked forward to seeing my friends and teachers each and every day. I love the school that I went to. It was, for me, a warm, happy place where I felt safe. My problem here is not with my school or any teachers in particular, it is more so with the grade school sexual education systems in general. Given that I am from a more liberal area, I know that I am lucky to have even had a sex-ed day in health class. However, here's how we could improve across the board when it comes to teaching this stuff: 

1. Give us more advice than “Be Safe” or “Practice Abstinence."

We could sit here all day pretending that not a single student is even remotely curious about sex and will just abide by an adult telling them to abstain from it, but that would be a waste of time. If everyone who throws around the demands to “make good decisions” and “be safe” is really serious about cutting down on STDs and unwanted pregnancies, they need to tell us how. Teach us how to properly put on a condom; don’t just say to use one. Teach us what a dental dam is (more on that later). Teach us about the different types of birth controls, how they actually work and what side effects they can have. Tell us where we can find all of these things; not everyone is fortunate enough to have guardians with whom they can openly discuss/ask about these things. Talk about the different stages of the different types of intercourse; explain what happens in the brain.

Doesn’t it seem backwards that a psychology class would learn about the different stages of arousal, but the sexual education unit in health class would not go beyond listing the “main" types of intercourse? I’m not at all saying that we have to go around intimately describing different sexual acts or kinks or anything like that. All I want is something more than a vague “be safe" and a little more information on how to do so and what sex actually is. 

There have been so many studies about how schools with more detailed sex-ed programs end up with lower teen pregnancy rates, so please, teach us! I don’t care how awkward it is; stop pretending that no one in the room is curious and instead explain what to do if we are. Most of what I know about the subject was not learned from mandatory sex ed in health class or any sort of puberty talk or book. Watching Sex in the City in secrecy late at night, which was so rebellious as it was rated TV-14 and I was a mere 13, taught me what an erection was. The book "Happyface," which I checked out from my middle school library, was where I saw the word “masturbation” for the first time; it was a word I had never seen or heard, and so I googled it. How I learned the different parts of a vagina? A BuzzFeed YouTube video about people trying to see if they could properly label different body systems (spoiler alert: most of us don't know as much as we think). Each time, all this new information came as a shock to me since I wasn’t looking for it. I can’t help but wonder how (or if) I would have learned about these things had I not stumbled across them this way.

It should be noted that I am not trying to advocate a Huxley-esque "Brave New World" type of society, where we just all run around urging everyone to sleep with each other; you can inform someone about something without telling them to do or not do that thing. All I ask is for the information to be shared. 

2. Stop being heteronormative.

Ooh. Another controversial one. But in a world where different types of people are constantly under attack for being, well, different, I feel that school should not be another place to ostracize and shame.

First of all, if we can get rid of the mentality that penis + vagina = sex and that is all, that would already be a huge step. That's why earlier, the idea of explaining the stages of arousal was mentioned. That would not only be a lot more informative, but you also don't have reason to bring gender into the equation when talking about what occurs in someone's brain. 

Additionally, how many people’s lives could we change by simply defining different terms like “bisexual," “asexual," “pansexual," etc.? What about talking about different genders besides the binary or discussing the difference between gender and sex? Being able to openly talk about different genders and sexualities, just as one would for a heterosexual relationship where both members identify with the gender binary, could make so many more students feel safer and more valid.

Going along with this, I know a lot of people like to blame the internet for being distracting and taking away from our intelligence and so on, but I have to say that were it not for LGBTQ+ YouTubers (like Jenna LarsonHannah Hart, Orion Carloto and Gaby Dunn, just to name a few) I would likely believe many more stereotypes and I would definitely not have any idea that dental dams existed. (For those who don’t know, dental dams can be used for someone practicing oral sex on a vagina, and basically act as a condom would to protect against STDs.) So yes, there are ways to find this information and other sex-related information besides health class, but if we’re going to make these sex-ed classes mandatory, let’s at least try to make them worthwhile for everyone.

3. Stop demonizing sex/sexuality.

As I write this section, all I can think about is the gym teacher from Mean Girls saying “Don’t have sex. Because you will get pregnant and die.” It’s funny, yes, but also kind of accurate. When attempting to scare people away from what is ultimately a human instinct, failure, I feel, is inevitable. Taking away the fear factor combined with increased education about how to actually be safe could do so much. So-called “rebels” won’t feel the urge to do something just because it's forbidden. People will be well-informed on how to conduct themselves safely AND not be scared when doing so and, most importantly, something that is so natural would not have to be such a taboo. I'm not in any way saying that we should openly discuss who we're sleeping with/what we're doing right in the middle of class or in the grocery store, but I don't think it would hurt to remove the shame and guilt associated with wanting to explore. Stop scaring us and telling us that a natural desire makes us impure, trashy or undesirable and instead focus more time elsewhere. The time spent shaming and scaring is simply wasting time that could have been spent informing and helping.

To sum everything up, I know I am lucky in that I had any education on this subject in the first place. I know that this topic is uncomfortable for many people to talk about and I know (or at least I think I know) that I probably thoroughly freaked out any family members or past teachers who may be reading this. But I believe that sexual education is important and that is something that I am never, ever going to back down on. Being thrown into a world where the conversation was no longer if sex is occurring, but rather if rape is occurring really threw me. While I am so glad we spent so much time during our first week discussing consent and misconduct policies, I feel that without my own research/accidental findings, I would have felt much more overwhelmed and unprepared.

I’ll end my rant now and leave you with this: if time is limited, spend it informing rather than scaring; if time is of excess, inform more. If people want to practice abstinence, fantastic for them, but for those who don't (and those who do, actually, because everyone should be informed regardless) provide resources and actual information on how to stay safe. Teach representation and acceptance and never shame anyone for what/who they choose to like. This is how we will improve. 

Lead Image Credit: Pexels

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Heidi Fliegelman - University of Delaware

Heidi is currently a Communications Interest and English Education Double Major, and Theatre Studies Minor at University of Delaware. In addition, she works at a nearby coffee shop, and, in her free time, she is involved in her school's theatre program and as well as a leadership exploration program. She loves doing all things theatre, playing with dogs, trying new foods and coffees, and writing. Follow her here- Instagram: heidi_nicole99 | Twitter: HEID_andgoseek | VSCO: heidi_nicole99

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