This weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran an interesting and reader-provoking article called "Teaching Good Sex." Focusing on a private school in Philly's approach to sexual education, the article raises the interesting question: what if we actually taught kids about sex? Not just abstinence, contraceptives, or disease prevention, but actual pleasure and intimacy?
The article is quite sweet, which isn't surprising. In 2009, the magazine ran a charming piece on the perils and triumphs of coming out in middle school. That author spoke to several young men and women about their experiences, including one boy who realized at the age of eleven that he didn't want to live a lie. In the midst of It Gets Better messaging, the writers focused on children for whom it had already gotten better. The article didn't gloss over some of the negative parts of being out at such a young age - the naysayers who crow "It's all a phase," or the specter (and reality) of bullying, especially in the smaller schools and towns - but overall, things looked bright for these kids.
However, both articles exist in sort of an alternate universe. American public policy has largely been divided over sex ed for kids - from 1996 to 2010, about half of American states offered truncated and morally judgmental courses in their public schools through funding from a policy called Title V. In order to get that funding, school boards had to commit to teaching things like "abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children" and "that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects." Support for the program came from parents and social conservatives, who felt that any mention of contraceptive use diluted the message that sex = married, monogamous sex.
As a Canadian, I was exposed to a variety of sex education throughout the years. In the fifth grade, I labelled parts of the penis and vagina. I somehow missed the canonical demonstration of condom use - roll it down over a banana, girls! - but I ended up with a fairly thorough understanding of what diseases might erupt or what a penis looked like. We talked about rape and sexual harassment, and about sexual orientation, but I don't remember any conversations about pleasure, intimacy, or the importance of communication. Sex is about so many things - procreation, intimacy, power relations, gender politics. It's about reclamation, like the girls who participated in SlutWalks after being told that rapes were a result of too-sexy clothes. It's about commitment, sometimes. Other times it's about joy. But running through it all, sex should be about pleasure.
With all the worry about gay kids, pregnant teenagers, and chlamydia outbreaks in the rest home, we so rarely touch on the basics. Sex is fun (mostly), but it comes with its own communication skill set. Just as marriage isn't a natural state of being (even if the conservatives tell you it totally is and that you're a freak if you're not in holy matrimony), talking about sex isn't something that just comes naturally to adults. It's like long division or good grammar: it needs to be taught, the younger the better. It's not like your husband slides a wedding ring on your finger and you're DTF with mad skillz.
The gap between "aware of sex" and "ready to have sex" isn't huge. All the better to fill it some positive, communication-heavy theories, then. Not talking about sex doesn't mean it doesn't happen. People are engaging in unsafe behaviours because they can't talk safely or openly about their experiences. Disrespect never gets called out. You might feel kind of gross when your boyfriend takes your heads and not-so-subtly steers it towards his erection, but if someone doesn't cock an eyebrow and validate your squicky emotions, the shame and weirdness of that moment can act as a barrier from bringing it into the light. Worse, if you mention it to your girlfriends and they all know exactly what you're talking about, it can perpetuate the normality of not-okay behaviours.
Teaching about something and giving permission to do it isn't the same thing. Students learn about space launches and the Holocaust, but nobody's telling them to get out there and reenact 'em. Sex education for kids and teenagers falls under the same ideology. It's important to have authority figures who are comfortable addressing the vagaries of the human experience from all angles. Sex isn't just about penis-in-vagina; it's about being open with your partners and being comfortable. The article talked about one student who had been the target of a nasty Facebook post implying that she was giving oral sex at parties; the incident came up during the sex ed classes as an example of "things that are not okay."
I don't know what the future holds for American students. The program profiled in this article was offered at a private school, and many of the online commentors expressed the sentiment that teaching sex ed was what was holding America back from being an Old Testament utopia/a math-and-science powerhouse/free of teen moms/whatever. I like to think that the graduates of that class have much better skills to work with in the soft science of sex, and even if they choose never to have sex with anyone, the ability to talk through a tough situation. Sex is hard. Love is hard. That's why they should teach it in schools.