Sex ed itself is notoriously a joke. Textbooks have been outdated since the beginning of time, diagrams look like animated aliens, and no one outside of exceptionally progressive educational enclaves such as New York and Los Angeles learns anything worth a damn about sex, in my opinion. Even adults tend to to hide what they don't know behind jokes. And porn is great and all, but it's not always a shining expression of healthy sexual attitudes.
But the perpetually underwhelming state of sex ed isn't actually funny. Some experts assert that it's contributing to the rising STD rates, since less knowledge means more irresponsible decisions (and not the fun kind that you 'gram on Saturday nights). Consent, a topic that's finally getting more attention, often isn't even mentioned in many curriculums. And then there's the pleasure principle: Not just a quintessential Janet track that oozes sexual empowerment, it's the reason people actually have sex. Your and your partner's physical pleasure matters. That could at least be mentioned to mushy-brained pre-teens.
The sex ed teachers I talked to for this piece are all looking for creative ways to work outside the system—or to change the system so that we can look forward to a day when sex ed isn't a joke anymore.
Amanda Sanfilippo, 53
Sanfilippo teaches sex ed in the New Orleans public school system and privately to adults with her own initiative, in part because she feels the city lacks even the most basic information about reproductive health.
"In the south," she says, "I wish I could teach about abortion. I am not allowed to talk about abortion."
But isn't abortion legal in all 50 states? I ask.
Sanfilippo schools me in the nuanced differences between what's legal to do in the south and what it is legal to say. "You have the legal right to have an abortion," she says, "What's illegal is to use the word abortion in a public school setting. The word—and the practice of abortion—is not to be discussed."
Further, Sanfilippo notes that diseases that are often passed from mother to child during pregnancy, like syphilis, are on the rise in Louisiana, and that students remain uneducated about what their options might be if they know that they are going to be transmitting a disease to their children. "The consequences are dire for both parents and the offspring of those parents when the parents don't know the options they have that are both safe and legal," she says.
Sean Clark, 31
Clark is a disease intervention specialist who works to reduce the spread of STDs through one-on-one intervention in New Orleans. He taught sex ed in the school system at many grade levels.
"I wish that I could teach students more about relationship building and communication," he tells me. "A lot of kids don't realize how the relationships they have impact the choices they make around their sexual behavior."
"Who do you want to sleep with? Who do you want to have a family with? Who do you want to have a relationship with? The relationships that we have impact the decisions we make," Clark says. "When you're missing this part of the conversation, when you're strictly talking about how not to catch an STD, you're missing a big chunk of the big picture."
Stephanie Hebert, 43
Hebert trains teachers in Austin and the surrounding areas to teach sex ed in the school system. As a teacher of teachers, she wants to focus more on helping them confront their own gender biases and not to transmit them.
"One of the things that we work hard with school districts on is to use inclusive language and to use trauma-informed approaches. What I mean is that the lessons they teach and the language they use is gender-neutral and inclusive," she says.
This is crucial when dealing with LGBTQ students. She describes the difference in language as "not saying the woman's vagina or the man's penis, but instead saying a person with a penis and testicles when talking about anatomy and not making everything so gendered."
"It's really hard for teachers to break away from using that language. Boys do this. Girls do that. One of my big pushes is to get them to look at gender stereotypes and biases and how that plays out in sexual education," Hebert adds.
It may seem like this is a political standpoint, but this difference in language has real health consequences for students. Students who don't identify as a cis-male or female often don't get the sexual education that they need to feel comfortable and informed.
"When we isolate people, when we don't include them in our everyday language around sexual health, they tune out," she says.
Alexis Thomas, 29
Thomas owns and runs Taboo Tabou, a feminist sex shop in Chicago, and teaches sex ed workshops for adults. She sees the pitfalls of our sexual education system play out everyday in her business and teaching and strives to bring the subject of pleasure into sex ed.
"I think we need to drive our sex education away from being focused just on sex for reproduction and teach that sex is also a pleasure-driven experience. When we only focus on sex for reproduction we are misleading our students from the realities of sex, " she says.
"One of the easiest ways to talk about pleasure is to talk about masturbation. Women and other genders do not need to experience pleasure necessarily to partake in reproduction and so we never hear about pleasure until we are much older," Thomas adds. "If we started talking about masturbation and the importance of knowing yourself and your pleasure we will open up the world of sex positivity to our youth."
I asked Thomas what the consequences are of students not being educated about pleasure and masturbation. "The consequences are what we see every day. People who are experiencing sex but are not present in the moment or experiencing any pleasure. People who feel shame because what they find pleasurable is something that is different then the typical heteronormative conversation we have in sex education. We are leading people into a life completely unprepared for the reality that sex is a big part of our life."
Latishia James, 29
James, aka Reverend Pleasure, is the CEO of an online streaming sex ed startup called O School, run out of Atlanta and the Bay Area. She focuses on teaching people how to unlearn shame from religious trauma.
"I wish that I could teach people that there's nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to their sexual desires and when it comes to how they show up as their sexual selves," she says.
James also works with women healing from rape trauma who are navigating their healing processes and finding it difficult to express their sexuality without shame. "Conversations that survivors of sexual trauma often have with themselves often go like, 'Oh, do I like this because I like it or because it was something that was done to me?' Not really being able to separate the two can bring a lot of shame. Maybe something that you really like is something that your perpetrator did to you, and how do you reconcile that?"
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