Birds, Bees, and B.S.: Lies Told in Sex Education

Students are told lies in Sex Ed, including that pre-marital "sex" is dangerous.

Posted Oct 25, 2020

Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

The state of U.S. Sex Education is abysmal. Indeed, it's harmful, according to the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine.

A great deal of the harm is that it is not based on science, despite the fact that truly good science on sexuality exists. Indeed, according to the Guttmacher Institute, only 17 states require sex education content to be medically accurate. This means that we can tell youth value-based lies. This is akin to telling students that 4 + 4 is equal to 10, just because you have a problem with the number 8. 

In my time teaching Psychology of Human Sexuality at the University of Florida, I've heard some whoppers that students have been told in their school-based sex education. Perhaps the most outrageous is a student who was taught in her public school that if she had intercourse before marriage, her vagina would mold to the shape of that man, and her future husband would never be satisfied since he wouldn't fit right. While this may sound absurd to you and like an obvious falsehood, please consider that the young woman heard it from an authority figure (i.e., the teacher), and thus she believed it to be true. Clearly, the point of telling this lie was to stop this young woman from having intercourse before marriage. And, it did do this. But it did more than this. It terrified her about sex in general.  

While this may sound extreme, it's actually not uncommon to be told lies in sex education. In fact, so many falsehoods are perpetuated that I can't cover them all in this one blog post. So, this will be the first in a series of posts about falsehoods taught in Sex Ed, as well as important information that is omitted from Sex Ed — and the harm these lies and omissions cause.

Top Vector Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Top Vector Studio/Shutterstock

The falsehood that this post will address is that "sex" (generally meaning intercourse, a problem in and of itself as I discuss in this post), before marriage is dangerous. Teaching students the dangers of having intercourse before marriage is clearly in line with the mandates of many states. According, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 29 states require that abstinence be stressed and 19 states require instruction on the importance of engaging in sexual activity only within marriage to be provided. Here are a few other examples of what real students have been told about the dangers of sex:

  • One young woman told me that a teacher had her and the other students write whether or not they were virgins on a slip of paper (thankfully, without names). The teacher then told the class that "all the girls who were not virgins likely had STDs and wouldn't finish school."
  • A young man said that he watched a movie in Sex Ed that likened a sexually active female to an old shoe that no one would want to wear. 
  • A young woman reported that her Sex Ed teacher told her that if she had sex before marriage, she would most certainly catch an STD, get pregnant, then have an ectopic pregnancy where either she or baby would die.

In short, it's not uncommon for teachers to spin falsehoods to encourage abstinence before marriage, with these lies generally concerned with the psychological, physical, and relational dangers of pre-marital sex. But, premarital sex is not harmful. As stated by the position paper by the Society of  Adolescent Health and Medicine, "While proponents for Abstinence Until Marriage (AUM) programs suggest that sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects, we find no [empirical] evidence that consensual sex between adolescents is psychologically harmful."

And, on top of that, according to several studies, including one by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AUM programs don't work. Conversely, programs that provide "comprehensive sexual education" (i.e., sex education that includes information on both abstinence and contraception) are effective in reducing teen pregnancy and STI rates. In short, it doesn't work to tell teens not to have sex until marriage. They do so anyway, but they just do so unsafely. I've had more than one student tell me, "I was told contraception was immoral, so I didn't use it." Sadly, for some, the result has been an unplanned pregnancy or an STI.

And, even for those who don't get an STI or pregnant, there is harm. I've had countless clients internalize the idea sex is wrong, bad, and dangerous — and even when they are later married and sex is now "allowable," they just can't flip a switch. Shame and sex don't mix well, and the result is a lot of bad sex and bad feelings.

The solution: Comprehensive sex education that bases its lessons on science and enables young people to make informed choices.

Let's stop lying to our youth. Let's teach them about the birds and bees but without the B.S.