In a few weeks, I'll be giving the opening keynote address at a conference of sex educators in New Jersey. While I will be among friends there, the message I will be giving is not a popular one. The gist of what I will be saying is that for middle schools and high school students, sex education is usually not sex education at all. Instead, it is sex prevention--with the occasional ovary, testicle, and sanitary napkin thrown in to make it sound like sex education.
Today's sex education is no more about the sexual issues that kids are facing than creationism is about biology. The agenda is about keeping Jacob's hands out of Emily's pants and keeping Olivia's hands away from Ethan's zipper. To say it is not fear based is to bury one's head in abstinence-only sand. Even among liberals, sexually-transmitted infections get way more traction than pleasure.
As I was working on my keynote, a colleague who is preparing sex-ed classes for 9th graders polled several of us for suggestions. The responses she received were very thoughtful. They centered around establishing boundaries and limit setting, self respect, explaining puberty, not sending nudie texts, and strategies for delaying sex. I, on the other hand, suggested the following:
First, let's look at the nature of the beast:
The chances are good that at least 75% of the boys in your 9th grade class have masturbated in the last 24 hours, some in the shower a few hours before your class. Many of them have probably watched some fairly hardcore porn within the last couple of days. They're waking up with raging boners every morning (even if the wood they are waking up with isn't necessarily sex-related), and during the rest of the day they are thinking about a lot more than puberty and the prevention of STIs. The are thinking about sex.
Chances are good that during the past month, a lot of the girls in your 9th grade class have read articles in Cosmo about how to give guys better blow jobs. Many have watched hardcore porn where there have been close ups of women's crotches that are accommodating really humongous penises. Some are excited about what they're seeing, some are frightened, and some aren't sure what to make of it. Some of the girls might be wondering why there's so much anal sex in porn. And even if the girls haven't seen much porn, a lot of the TV vampire shows are quite sexually exciting and somewhat porn-adjacent.
So, where's their reality check? Where's help for 9th graders with what really goes on in relationships? Here's a short list for some of the things that might be helpful for them:
1. Let your students know it's important to talk to a partner about what feels good and what doesn't. Too often, we expect a partner to magically know.
2. The medial terms we have for our genitals can seem stiff and too formal, while slang can sometimes feel too crude. Let them know it can be helpful to talk with a partner about finding comfortable terms for each other's genitals besides just "down there."
3. Discuss how to say "YES" as well as how to say "NO"--and why "yes" needs to be a clear "yes," and why "no" is often not understood and needs to be a clear "no," (While your students might think they are indicating "no," it's often the case that they are not being as clear to others as they might think.) Either way, teaching about yes in a positive way is just as important as teaching about no, and it will give you credibility with students as opposed to the usual discussion about "respecting yourself" which tends to be weighted toward saying no.
4. Be sure to mention there will be times when you'll want to say both "yes" AND "no," and how this can be confusing for both you and your partner.
5. Talk about some of the things that women find to be a turn on (and a turn off) about men, and some of the things that men find to be a turn on (and a turn off) about women.
6. Try to normalize periods for both males and females. You might mention the study (I can't swear to the methodology) where students thought more poorly of a girl who dropped an unused tampon out of her purse than when she dropped a pen. You might talk about how periods are a private thing, but private is different from bad or shameful. Periods are nothing a woman should ever feel embarrassed about, and they are nothing a guy should ever make her feel anxious or ridiculed about. You might mention how periods can be unpredictable the first couple of years, how they don't always happen every 28 days, how the total amount of period flow is around 2 to 5 tablespoons total for each period, how the flow is often rust colored instead of bright red and how it's made up of different things besides just blood. This will be especially helpful for the males in your classes to hear about, because males are usually left out of period discussions, yet expected to behave maturely about periods in general. You might say that lots of couples enjoy having sex during periods, but it needs to be something you both want to do.
7. While condoms can help prevent the spread of certain STIs, they aren't the most effective method of birth control. Let your students know that IUDs are a great choice for young women. The NuvaRing can be good as well, because remembering to take a birth control pill every day is something all people struggle with. You only need to forget one or two pills a month, and their effectiveness goes way down. I realize that few of your students' parents are going to support birth control for 9th graders, but it's good to get them thinking about more effective methods of birth control than just condoms. (A goal is to get 17, 18, and 19 year old women using the more effective methods of birth control, so a good time to start talking about this is in 9th grade.)
Fortunately, my friend who is teaching this class is very intuitive about her students' needs and requires no reminders from me. But there remains such a huge gap between what students in middle school and high school need to know about sexuality and what we are expected to give them, which is sex prevention instead of sex education. Unfortunately, this leaves the real work of educating our young about sexuality to today's porn producers who are giving them something titillating and it doesn't sound like propaganda from the 1950s.