How To Make Sex More Dangerous
Originally posted in The New York Times.
March 11, 2019
I cried the first time I saw a naked man. As a young woman growing up in a conservative Catholic household, I couldn’t even look at my own genitals, and thought I would go to hell for masturbating. The abstinence-only education I received — at school, at home, in the church — left me with years of shame, isolation and fear.
I’ve watched the recent battles over allowing comprehensive sex ed in Colorado, Utah and Idaho, and I know how much is at stake for children. As a sex educator and entrepreneur, I’ve spoken with thousands of similarly miseducated young people, and I know the mental and physiological damage it can inflict.
Americans laugh at the embarrassment parents face in talking to kids about sex. But it’s not a joke. Fewer students now receive comprehensive sex ed in our country than at any time in the past 20 years. Since the late 1990s, conservative activists — often with the help of conservative presidents — have steadily chipped away at sex education by funding and mandating abstinence-only policies in schools.
Only about half of all school districts in the United States require any sex ed at all. Of those that do, most mandate or stress abstinence-only instruction. No birth control. No sexually transmitted infection prevention. No consent.
In fact, 18 states require that educators tell students that sex is acceptable only within the context of marriage. Seven states prohibit teachers — under penalty of law — from acknowledging the existence of L.G.B.T.Q. people other than in the context of H.I.V. or to condemn homosexuality. Only 10 states even reference “sexual assault” or “consent” in their sex education curriculums.
And in districts where comprehensive sex education is provided, parents are largely allowed to opt out of such instruction for their children.
Conservatives often frame sex ed as government overreach, arguing that lessons in sexuality and relationships are best provided by parents. But most parents can’t or don’t provide such guidance. Refusing to provide children with medically accurate information about their own sexual development isn’t ideological; it’s negligent.
It’s not even effective. States that place a heavy emphasis on abstinence-only sex ed have seen much higher rates of teen pregnancy, even when studies control for factors like income and education levels.
During the Obama administration, funding for abstinence-only sex education was shifted toward more comprehensive sex education — and teen pregnancy dropped nationwide by 41 percent. The Trump administration, embracing an abstinence-only approach, has reversed course, cutting more than $200 million in funding for the program.
Despite the dreams of social conservatives, few teens actually practice abstinence. Nearly 60 percent of students have sex before they graduate from high school, according to some surveys. Many do so without any instruction from parents or schools on condoms, infections or consent.
Perhaps that’s why one in four American women will become pregnant by the time they turn 20.
Or why a quarter of all new cases of sexually transmitted infections occur in teenagers — and the number of S.T.I.s has been at all-time highs.
Or why only 41 percent of American women have described their first sexual experience as wanted.
When we refuse to teach students about sex, we don’t stop sex — we just make it more dangerous. And it’s not just because of S.T.I.s.
Kids who lack information and ownership over their bodies are more likely to be taken advantage of. When children are taught that all premarital sex is negative, it’s harder for them to fight, or report, abuse or coercion.
Abstinence education negates the possibility of consent. When I was a teen, I was taught that men would try to get sex from me, and that my job was to say no. That made me feel as if the coercion and violations that happened to me were my fault. All sexual acts are equally wrong, so if a boy went too far on a date with me, it was my fault for letting him touch me at all.
Keeping children in the dark allows predators to set the narrative. They count on the culture of silence and the sense of shame. When virginity is prized as the highest honor, those who are assaulted can feel even more worthless — and may avoid reporting abusive or predatory behavior out of shame and confusion.
For L.G.B.T.Q. children, things can be even more bleak. A lack of inclusive sex education contributes to feelings of isolation and shame, while enabling bullies. L.G.B.T.Q. kids have even fewer resources, and face more drastic consequences — from physical abuse to homelessness — when they attempt to report assaults.
When we promote abstinence over medically accurate sexual health, it inflicts a lifetime of physical and psychological harm on young people.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In many countries, the right to accurate information about sexual health is deemed essential. Children raised in the Netherlands, for example, begin sex ed in kindergarten. American teens give birth at a rate that is five times higher than that of their Dutch counterparts. Most Dutch teens report their first sexual experience positively.
We joke about sex because it’s difficult for us to talk about. And in part because our parents weren’t able to talk with us about it, we’re unable to talk with our kids. We can break the cycle for the next generation of young people by fighting for accessible and comprehensive sex education.
Their safety is more important than our shame.