Looking back, sex ed was more or less a two week crash course (usually from a P.E. teacher moonlighting as the health teacher) that involved labeling male and female sex organs, watching outdated cartoonish videos about puberty and “raging” hormones, and maybe a discussion around abstinence. So much for preparing us for real-world experiences, right?
We recently spoke with Jenny Waugh, a sexual health educator and public health advocate, who runs the Instagram page (and soon-to-be website) @sexpositivesexed. Like so many of us, Jenny didn’t have a good sex ed experience, which she realized as she was studying to become a sex educator in college. Jenny has made it her mission to demystify some of the myths we learned in those high school sex ed classes and to make it easier to talk about sex—both the fun and the uncomfortable stuff—so that more people are better equipped to have conversations with their partners, friends, and family. Here, Jenny shares some of the things that she not only wished she’d learned in school, but would also love to see incorporated into sex ed curriculum.
Sexuality Is Not Shameful
So much of the language we use in sex ed is male-focused. I have vivid memories of watching a movie about erections and wet dreams in 5th grade, but I don’t recall learning anything about female body parts or orgasms (take, for example, that the vagina isn’t an all encompassing term for our genitals). It wasn’t until college that I understood the distinction between my vulva and my vagina—and many people (even vulva owners) tell me that they still don’t understand everything going on with their sexual anatomy as adults. It wasn’t until my twenties that I learned about the clitoris and female pleasure.
Talking about pleasure and masturbation doesn’t have to be explicit, but it’s still important to acknowledge that pleasure is natural, normal, and good for everyone of all genders and bodies. We need to re-frame masturbation as something that can be an act of pleasure, self-exploration, and self-love—all of which validates that it’s not shameful or something to be embarrassed about.
People who are resistant to sex ed cling to the idea that it’s only about orgasms or penetration, but sex ed can be beneficial and appropriate for anyone at any age. It starts with learning how to properly name our anatomy when we’re young—even before starting school. That includes learning what female bodies are and what they’re used for. It can also include teaching young people things like, “this is your vulva,” or explaining what’s “good touch” and what’s “bad touch,” and learning how to speak up when something is wrong. It’s so important to have those conversations earlier to help set kids up for positive sexual relationships in the future.
STIs Are Completely Manageable
Education around STIs is often rooted in fear over facts. We’re taught that STIs only happen to certain people, like folks with lots of sexual partners who don’t use protection. In reality, STIs are incredibly common, and they can happen to anyone, whether it be from their first experience, their first partner, or their very last.
If we want people to have safer sex and safer relationships, then we need to give them tangible tools to make healthy, autonomous choices and behaviors, not myths and misconceptions. Research shows messages about sex that are evidence-based, non-biased, and sex positive are so much more effective at improving not only sexual health, but also quality of life. This includes education about all types of sex and the unique risks involved, as well as how to lower them.
I’m so glad that there’s a lot more dialogue around consent and sexual assault than when I was growing up. “No means no” is pretty much the only message I received about consent, but it’s so much more complex than that. There was little to no conversation about how to speak up for your safety in a vulnerable situation (like when there’s been drinking).
As I mentioned above, middle or high school shouldn’t be the first time young people are taught about autonomy and communication in sexual relationships. Age-appropriate sex ed should start as soon as children begin learning about their bodies. Beginning sex ed can be as simple as teaching young children honestly about their body parts, good touch and bad touch, and how to speak up when they feel uncomfortable or have experienced something that doesn’t feel right.
Abstinence-only Education Doesn’t Work
We’ve got the statistics to prove that. This emphasis on purity and/or losing that value is more likely going to harm peoples’ views of sex, pleasure, and self-worth than to prevent teen pregancy or STIs. It totally misses the mark to talk about how to decide when you’re ready for sex, how to prepare, and the kind of conversations to have around it.
This is another reason culturally-inclusive sex ed is so important. The typical one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t take into account things like social determinants of health and health disparities among different communities often falls on deaf ears and becomes a wasted opportunity to arm folks with tools they can use in the real world.
Ignoring queer sex is not only dismissive of queer identities, but also disregards the risks associated with different types of sexual activity. It’s still a common myth that having anal sex “keeps virignity intact” and is low risk because anal can’t lead to pregnancy. We can still get STIs from anal sex (and pretty easily, too!), but there’s little education around that.
I think that focusing on p-in-the-v sex is confusing for people who never plan to have that type of sex. We see similar messages in abstinence-only education surrounding first time sexual experiences. Culturally, we’re socialized to think that “losing virginity” is having penile-vaginal sex for the first time. But what about queer-identifying people? The implication is that the sex they have doesn’t count.
The lack of LGBTQ education doesn’t just lead to poor sexual health outcomes, but overall health as well. LGBTQ teens are more likely to experience homelessness, violence, and suicide, among other inequities, compared to their straight-identifying peers. This is an area in particular where I think we should be consulting folks who are dedicated and certified in this space, not an overworked P.E. teacher or Catholic school nun—those who can educate or at least develop inclusive and trauma-informed curriculum to create a learning environment that’s free of judgment and bias.
It’s my mission as an educator to improve sexual health by bringing attention to these harmful myths and stigma as a means of unlearning shame and judgment. Instead of shaming and creating fear, let’s empower learners of all ages with honest and accurate information so that they can better communicate about sexual health with their partners, friends, family, etc. There is a lot of work to be done, but I belong to a community of even more fantastic people who are working toward the same goal. I have the best job in the world.
We really enjoyed talking to Jenny! To learn more about Jenny’s work, visit @sexpositivesexed.