Updated: May 22
Only 15 states require medically accurate sexual education to be taught in schools (Planned Parenthood). You read that right: a measly 15 out of 50 states require instruction to be medically accurate. Not only is that statistic utterly insane, but it was completely new information to me (and maybe to you, too). Placed side-by-side with more progressive countries, it’s obvious the extent of sex-ed in the United States is incredibly inadequate. The Netherlands introduced what they call “comprehensive sex education” as early as age four, where they focus on qualities such as “respect, intimacy, and safety,” (Melker, Saskia de) and the Danish curriculum permits showing pornography in the classroom to help students distinguish the differences between what they see on their screens and real sexual relationships (Russell, Helen). While it might be common knowledge to some, others have no idea of how harmful it really is to take the conservative, abstinence-only approach American schools are currently enforcing.
Fortunately, inclusivity is becoming more prioritized by society each day. With the rise of social media, we’re able to share ideas and experiences faster than ever before. Activists
of all ages have taken to apps like Twitter and Instagram to join the fight, challenging social
norms, promoting diversity, and advocating equality for marginalized groups. However, we still have a long way to go when it comes to obtaining true equality--as a young person myself, I’ve witnessed firsthand a lot of places where there’s room for improvement. The public school system is failing our youth in various aspects, most notably its overall lack of sex education. The stigma around these “taboo” topics must be addressed starting in our schools. Until it is addressed, teens will have no choice but to continue suffering the consequences of their elders’ actions.
Currently, the majority of the curriculum is centered around saying “no” to sex before
marriage at any cost. This might appear to be a good method at first glance, but it’s really
just placing a Band-Aid over a bullet wound. Sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of, period.
It’s a completely normal human behavior almost everyone partakes in at some point in their lives, yet we treat it as a dirty, evil thing teens have no right to even think about. With public school’s sorry excuse of a sex-ed class fresh in my mind, I can say with confidence that the sole focus was encouraging abstinence — “Here are some types of STD’s, but we’ll gloss over those because as long as you never have sex, you won’t have to deal with it!” — yeah, no. I can doubly assure you it definitely only backfired, as the lengthy record of people I remember being sexually active in high school is far too extensive to write.
What the course did accomplish was unintentionally encouraging risky and unsafe sexual behavior. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, about 46% of the sexually active teens they surveyed in 2019 did not use a condom the last time they had sex (“Sexual Risk Behaviors..."). That’s a big number, and it’s one that would be a lot smaller if young adults received proper education on forms of protection. Suggesting that we only need to talk about condoms is a low bar, though, as there are countless other forms of birth control and protection demanding inclusion, too. Patches, IUDs, implants, injections, pills...the list goes on.
Some don’t think the responsibility of sexual education should fall to public schools, and instead encourage private conversation at home, yet many households neglect this responsibility. We expect parents to do the teaching, yet I was the one who ended up having to explain what a dental dam was, something they’d never heard of before. Because education about protection and safe sex is often neglected by both schools and families, teens are left with nowhere to turn.
This leaves room for one of two things to happen: (a) they don’t get any answers to their
questions and end up engaging in unsafe sex unknowingly, or (b) they look to Google for
help. While the internet is home to a treasure trove of useful resources, places like Tumblr
glorify and glamorize risky sex, leading to young adults wondering how in the world they
got chlamydia from not using protection when “gay people don’t need condoms!” (true story,
false statement). The takeaway? The biggest threat teens face isn’t sex: it’s unsafe sex, and
they’ll continue to succumb to this pandemic of misinformation if schools refuse to do nothing but maintain their current curriculum.
Let’s touch back on the social media aspect of the spread and reach of false information, as well as the role it plays in people’s sex lives. Romanticization occurs when a subject is misleadingly portrayed as something ideal. It happens all the time in media, where shows
such as Riverdale, Skins, and 13 Reasons Why dominate their respective industries and present unrealistic, glorified representations of mental illness, substance abuse, and casual sex. The main culprit, though, comes in the form of online media, the place where the majority of teens get their information.
Tumblr has been a long time and repeat offender of these harmful and dangerous promotions, where it’s all too common to see posts idolizing mental illnesses and destructive
coping mechanisms resulting from years of real, tangible trauma simply chalked up to “daddy issues.” It’s not normal for underage girls to fantasize about sleeping with men 40 years older than them while listening to Lana Del Rey and being jealous of Dolores “Lolita” Haze, so why do we act like it is? More recently, a new platform has presented itself in the form of TikTok, and its similar formatting to 2012 Tumblr proves history is prone to repeating itself. The toxic environments allowed to fester and build in certain hashtags on these apps are no place for anyone, let alone inexperienced young adults who don’t know any better.
You’re bound to find disturbing content in public forums if you dig deep enough and know what to search for, but the problem is nowadays it’s much too easy. Even just opening these apps, young people are prematurely exposed to mature themes and content. Sexual, "smutty” Wattpad (a popular storytelling platform) fanfiction is a good intro to porn for middle school girls who are forbidden from speaking on sex in any form. “Kinktok”, a new subgenre
of the aforementioned Tik Tok, is another place to find content certainly not appropriate for
all ages. Now, that’s not to say this is totally negative. Naturally, adult content will be made
on an adult app with adult users, and a lot of accounts are created with the sole intention of
educating, normalizing, and boosting amazing concepts such as body positivity, safe sex, and relationship advice (even some of my own sex education has been found through experts’ videos on TikTok).
The problem here isn’t so much the content itself or who’s viewing it, so much as the reason why they’re seeking it out. If talking about sex was normalized enough, tweens and teens wouldn’t need to get their answers from these sources. Instead, you have a rampant abundance of twelve-year-olds talking about knifeplay and their favorite bondage knots because it’s the first thing to come up when you search “sex”. This phenomenon of pledging obedience to social media influences instead of educators is derived from an assortment of causes, from experiencing more comfort through a non-judgemental screen to a wider span of knowledge available on the internet. Whatever the reason, it’s wrong, and is a direct outcome of failing to provide our youth with sources essential to their growth.
A flaw in the system requiring its own section entirely is dedicated to LGBTQ individuals; if
heterosexuals are neglected, queer-identifying people are cut out of the curriculum altogether. This deficiency in the quality and quantity of available information stems wholly from the misconception that sex education and LGBTQ sex education should be treated as different entities, even though both phrases are made of the same words. Punished for deviating from the heterosexual norm in more ways than one, the American school system does nothing but contribute to the homophobic and homoexclusive standards which we as a country continue to push in terms of our laws, governance, and education. Not only is homosexuality rarely addressed in school to begin with, but it may even be considered illegal depending on where you live. Seven states have laws either prohibiting LGBTQ subject matter from being shared in the classroom or requiring teachers to frame those topics in a negative light; Oklahoma teaches their students that “homosexual activity” is responsible for AIDS; and Arizona is banned from using positive words to describe LGBTQ people when talking about HIV (“America’s Sex Education...").
By demonizing and condemning anything even slightly diverging from same-sex attraction
at a young age, these laws and curricula only contribute to identity issues and homophobia If queer relationships aren’t talked about in a normalized, positive manner, young people
questioning or in touch with their sexualities feel like they’re “wrong” for feeling how they do. And who are the ones that often end up validating said feelings? Older men who are experts in child-grooming, paying for sex with minors. Too many of my gay peers spoke to older guys in search of control over at least something in their lives, only to be preyed upon and coerced into sex--which, mind you, is statutory rape. This is the darker, undiscussed side of being young and gay, and it’s something indirectly but further pushed by our schools, thanks to a scarcity of information and conversation on LGBTQ relationships.
All of these factors combine to create one big maelstrom of misinformation and chaos.
With such an emphasis on teen pregnancy and abstinence instead of safety, the absence
of sex education in the US can lead to dire repercussions for tween, teen, and young adult
development. Unreliable sources of information often give incorrect or even dangerous advice, which can end up causing serious damage in the long run. The widespread romanticization of toxic themes including abuse and risky sex can have significant negative effects on one’s health, both mental and physical, that endanger young people and may potentially put them in harm’s way with situations involving older men or inappropriate and mature content.
Thankfully, people are much more open to change nowadays, leaving room for constructive
development. There are several key courses of action to take that will drastically decrease the detrimental effects of poor education, as well as help young people stay safe and informed. The first major change needed is the encouragement of open conversation at home. Active listening, good communication, and demonstrating openness to exploration are all ways to make teens more comfortable when talking about sex.
By engaging in open discussion, teens can learn how to set healthy boundaries and communicate properly in their own relationships. Instead of outlawing things like porn and masturbation, they must be addressed up-front in order to help young people understand healthy and realistic standards, as well as normalize self-pleasure.
The next step is to provide affordable, reliable resources made accessible to young people. When two of my friends suspected they might have an STD, the only place they could get free testing from was at Frederick, Maryland’s Pride celebration. I know of some local high schools offering tests of their own; though that’s more effort than most schools provide, the tests were only available for one week over the course of the entire year. More money needs to be put into community resources like Planned Parenthood and similar clinics so teens can get necessary testing, protection, or even information imperative to their sexual health and safety.
The problems and solutions proposed here are fairly simple to understand, and I’m sure
that many of you agree with my sentiments. However, the conversation is pointless without
the required means and protections to carry out constructive education. The last missing piece of the puzzle is to introduce curriculum at a federal level. When laws detailing sex-ed
are permitted to be dictated state by state, it allows for discriminatory biases to show. The US as a whole has a huge problem with the separation of church and state, and the education system is not immune.
LGBTQ individuals must see themselves represented in health classes across the country
in order for them to truly be all-inclusive classes. By introducing a federal curriculum, states no longer have the autonomy to disadvantage certain groups of people based on their own
prejudices, and can instead be fair and inclusive for everyone.
We took back our slips of paper we’d nervously written our anonymous questions on that never really got answered during the “talk” in school, and our community shared what we wish had been taught or — at the very least — talked about.
Join us on Instagram by tagging @_moremagazine, using #RealSexRealTalk, and tell us what you wish you’d learned. these images courtesy of Kenia Pacheco, Isabella Lowery, Marie Fisher, Chloe Price, and Danielle Barry, respectively. Written by Isabella Lowery.
Planned Parenthood. “Sex Education Laws and State Attacks.” Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/issues/sex-education/sexeducation-laws-and-state-attacks.
Melker, Saskia de. “The Case for Starting Sex Education in Kindergarten.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, May 27, 2015. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/spring-fever.
Russell, Helen. “Porn Belongs in the Classroom, Says Danish Professor.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, March 16, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/mar/16/pornographybelongs-
“Sexual Risk Behaviors Can Lead to HIV, STDs, & Teen Pregnancy.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 10, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/sexualbehaviors/index.htm#1.
“America’s Sex Education: How We Are Failing Our Students.” USC. University of Southern California Department of Nursing, December 1, 2020. https://nursing.usc.edu/blog/americas-sex-education/.