I’ve been wanting to write this article for a while now and found that I would make notes during dull business meetings or while I was sitting in a coffeeshop, decompressing from my day. In fact, I was once asked while sitting on a panel at a conference what I would do with one millions dollars and, without batting an eye, I answered, “Invest it in better sexual education.” I really believe in a strong, robust, long-term delivery of information directed towards helping people better understanding their bodies, exploring pleasure, being informed about sexual health, and reducing shame as much as possible. It gives me hope to see all of the avenues for information regarding sex turning up, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
According to the Center for Disease Control, teen pregnancy fluctuates at high levels (26.5 births to every 1,000 teen girls) and STI rates are at an epidemic level (1 in 4 teen girls has an STI). Despite the best efforts of the Moral Majority (or, I would argue, because of the Moral Majority, who prohibited a robust educational program in America), risky and unhealthy sexual behaviors in the United States are practiced at substantially higher numbers than in other developed countries. Just how did sex ed in the U.S. get so bad in the first place?
The historical material presented here is from an earlier transcript from AJ+. Please be sure to watch their brief video.
The first sex-ed curriculum, called “Sex Hygiene” classes, was introduced in 1913 in Chicago by a woman named Ella Flagg Young, who was also the first female superintendent of schools in the city. Unfortunately for Young and her students, the Catholic Church put an end to her program after only one year.
By World War I, the U.S. government realized it had a major problem, or rather its troops did. The Army lost a total of 7 million working days from soldiers suffering from STIs, or “VD” for venereal disease as it was called then. A total of 10,000 soldiers were discharged for having VD. After studying the matter, President Woodrow Wilson concluded that American soldiers wouldn’t have contracted STIs had they been better educated about sex – or at least that the number could have been dramatically reduced. Almost immediately, 40 percent of American public schools started teaching sex ed, which coincidentally developed just as the film industry was taking off. As Hollywood boomed, so did sex-ed films.
The next two shifts in sexual education revolved around medical advancements. In the 1930’s, the U.S. Office of Education began publishing materials and training teachers on how to teach sex ed. By 1944, at the height of World War II, the mass production of penicillin was introduced and saved troops everywhere suffering from STIs. Fast forward 16 years, when the FDA approved “the Pill” in 1960 for widespread use; it was the beginning of the Sexual Revolution. With education taking place at home with citizens and abroad with the enlisted, together with the numerous discussions taking place around “the pills” – plural – people began to have more sex because they were informed about preventative health (proactive) as much as treatment (reactive) for sexual health. It is always interesting for me to note that the Sexual Revolution began when sex was safe for women – in other words, women felt they could take control of their own sexual activities and chose to have more sex. So much for that myth about women not wanting to have sex!
Of course, Americans’ newfound sexuality didn’t come without backlash. In 1968, a pamphlet called “Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?” distributed by the Christian Crusade started appearing in public schools. 1970s curriculum featured some of the most explicit films found in sex-ed classes, ones they wouldn’t likely show in today’s classrooms and by the late ‘70s, the Conservative Right started influencing some parents to protest the curriculum. In 1981, the Reagan Administration introduced the “Adolescent Family Life Act.” This law, which put a ton of funding sex-ed programs that promoted abstinence ($1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars from 1981-2010), and was the single greatest influence on modern-day sex-ed curriculum. But research showed that abstinence-only programs that gained popularity in the ‘80s and ‘90s didn’t work. Teens still had just as much sex, and states with abstinence-only education had the highest rates of teen pregnancies, according to National Vital Statistics Reports, “Most Teen Pregnancies, 1990”. In fact, a 2008 study reported that teens who received comprehensive sex-education were 60% less likely to get pregnant than those who received abstinence-only education, according to the Journal of Adolescent Health.
In light of the staggering failure of abstinence-only education, President Obama cut funding for abstinence-only programs in 2010 by two-thirds and transferred those monies, for the first time ever, to comprehensive sex-ed programs. Today, both abstinence-only sexual education and more comprehensive sexual education are equally funded by the American government. But with only 18 states and the District of Columbia offering those kind of comprehensive classes, what people really need to know about sex still seems to be getting lost. As a result, people have been aggressively seeking out new avenues of sexual education.
Traditional Education (high school or college)
Sexual education has been on the decline since the 1980’s with the rise of the Moral Majority. In fact, the last time that America had a widespread educational program in place was in the 1970’s, when it was arguably more progressive than it is today. Today, four in ten Americans who took a sex ed class say that it did not adequately prepare them for life, sexual activity, or relationships. Four in ten who actually took a sex ed class.
Traditional sex-ed is so limited in today’s schools that 28 states don’t even require it to be taught (Hawaii, Washington, Idaho, California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Alabama, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire). Only 13 states require that sex-ed instruction be medically accurate (Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Maine, Rhode Island, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Hawaii), which primarily means that it should be accurate about the effectiveness of condoms.
This leaves a vacuum for many students who, if they go to college, will need to take a fundamental class on human anatomy or reproduction to understand what they should have learned in high school. This is unacceptable. It is a strong probability that, over the lifespan, students will use what they have learned in a sex education class every bit as much as the core subjects, which is why it is important to have a strong and robust comprehensive sexual education program in every state. Would we allow a widespread remedial education for “core” subjects like English and Math?
Currently, traditional sexual education is either categorized as “comprehensive” or abstinence-only. What does this mean and how do we distinguish them?
- Comprehensive – This is a misnomer. “Comprehensive” sexual education only means that there are discussions about contraception such as condoms and the Pill. It does not mean that the sexual education provided explains anatomy, reproduction, safety and sexual health, where to find resources, consent, gender identity, sexual identities and/or expression, or anything else.
- Abstinence-Only – As the name indicates, the only form of sexual education that takes place is “don’t do it.” Typically, this is a fear-based effort, focusing on the rate of STD’s, the risk of pregnancy, and graphic depictions of venereal diseases. While I appreciate the preventative effort, too often abstinence-only education is misinformed, reads statistics incorrectly, and comes too late. Many teenagers are already sexually active by the time they are presented with this kind of education, which typically results in one of two reactions: 1) it compounds the role of humiliation and long-term shame since so much of abstinence-only education is weighted to guilt and shame someone into not participating in sexual activities or worse, the student sees symptoms of an STD or STI and, because of the way the materials are structured, is shamed and not presented material on where to seek medical or medicinal treatment, or 2) having not yet contracted an STD or STI, the student believes themselves impervious. Since abstinence-only education is primarily geared towards binary thinking (ex: abstinence = health, sexual activity = disease), the student who does not yet exhibit symptoms laughs off what they just learned and proceeds to engage in sex more frequently since, again, they believe the rules presented in a dualistic curriculum (“always” or “never”) do not apply to them.
This is the reason why “sex sells” in so many ways – the more we live, the more we understand how ill-equipped we are because of the failures of our current sexual education programs. Moving on, one of the first things I seek to determine when I am looking at new sources of sexual information is whether the information they are providing is experiential or conceptual. This is really important to me, and it’s also important to understand before we start describing all of the new sources of sexual education.
- Experiential – An idea, suggestion, or fact that the person sharing has experienced themselves or has been trained in and is currently qualified to speak on. I tend to prefer experiential because they have a better grasp on what they are talking about.
- Conceptual – Conceptual education is what you might see in a magazine, “tips and tricks to wow your partner” kind of thing. Most of these suggestions are untested and unproven by the person sharing them but sound really easy or sexy to their audience. For example, “drizzle honey on your partner” might sound sexy to a lot of people, but experientially, I would be sure to tell you that it made my sheets sticky, got in my hair as well as my partners (yep, even pubic hair) and was more of a hassle than it was “fun” and “liberating.” If the person telling you something about sex doesn’t have first-hand experience or the qualifications to back up what they are saying, then it should be heard and understood with a measure of suspicion.
Licensed Sex Educators
Licensed sex educators are people who have gone to “sex school” or been trained in sexual education, sexual prevention, or have some kind of certification/credentials to share qualified information. With the rise of social media and blogging, almost anyone can be an “expert” in a given field. When it comes to sex, I’d prefer to hear from someone who has given the topic a lot of thought and has been exposed to a broad range of information, whose conclusions and studies are validated in some way and been licensed by an accredited agency.
The difficulty with “accredited agencies” in sexual health is that so many are experiential instead of conceptual and also because of the focused nature of sexual studies. It’s a Catch-22. Like most areas of academia, the only research that is validated is the kind supported by an accredited, reputable agency and which can be diversified and “rounded out” by supplemental studies which are typically unrelated to the field of study. For example, I studied Business in college, but I also had to take Theater, Biology, and Fine Arts – all of which helped me tremendously, but none of which were directly related to my particular field of study, Business.
It is hard to find support from an accrediting agency when it comes to sex because sex is such a multi-variant experience and because most “sex schools” focus only on sexual matters (not, say, theater or business). In other words, there is no degree in “Orgasms.” There are, however, degrees in Human Sexuality (which falls under medical/biological studies and is thus more likely to find accreditation since medical studies must be taken in conjunction with other areas of study). Someone may very well be the world’s best orgasm instructor – how to have them, how to give them – but no serious agency is going to back a diploma like that. Instead, many “sex schools” or institutes provide groundbreaking information in a concentrated way, but do it outside an accrediting organization through an “institute” or “school” by offering licensure, but not a degree.
Institutes and Schools
Licensed sexual educators, of course, only achieve their licensure by attending a school, seminar, workshop, or other avenue of learning. You might have heard of The Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana, The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, or some other school focused on sexual education, information, and health. Be sure to check on where the licensed sexual educator you are listening to attended and where they were licensed, then check whether these temples of learning offer courses or workshops that you could attend to help you be more informed yourself! Personally, I love studying sex and regularly ask friends to sign up for classes with me.
Another good source of information (and usually pretty fun) are workshops at your local sex shop. I’ve attended a few at Hustler Hollywood in Los Angeles with Emily Morse of Sex with Emily and a few others across Southern California. I’ve always had an amazing time, met interesting people, and made great connections.
Workshops are usually audience-driven because they are smaller, which means they will have more time to answer questions, do hands-on demonstrations, and broaden your perspective by hearing other people share. I love, love, love workshops and would encourage you to go to one the next time they are available in your area. Check with local sex shops to see when they are hosting one, or if they know of anyone in your area who will be doing one soon.
Apart from my parents, a consistent place to learn about societal roles of gender, love, acceptance, and forgiveness is religion. I’m not convinced that this should be a primary source of sexual education, as helpful information can be adopted or filtered to support theological or spiritual positions (which are not always helpful or correct), but whatever my own suppositions, balancing what is learned elsewhere through the lenses of one’s religious beliefs and within a faith community is important to holistic health. Mazel tov!
My parents prioritized early education of gender and sexual activity for me, and as a result, when my friend Patrick told me in second grade that his brother told him “girls get pregnant in their butt,” I knew enough to tell him that his brother was a damn fool.
Almost everyone will agree that some sexual information should be communicated by family members at an early age (ex: appropriate vs. inappropriate touching, correct anatomical names for genitalia, etc), but as we age, we are likely to rely on friends for information more and more. As I’ve said previously, if something doesn’t sound “right”, be sure and check it out. Your friend might be correct or they might not – it can be a gamble – so I want to encourage you to hear what they have to say, but do your own homework. Ultimately, no matter who tells you something, you are responsible for educating yourself about your own body and sexual health.
Educational Materials (books, dvds, etc)
More and more people have turned to nonfictional educational materials since the pornography laws were relaxed in the late 1970’s. While there are, of course, “waves” in publishing, I have found amazing materials at used bookstores (especially in larger cities) and have even come across several educational dvds starring couples who are able to give information as well as contextualize it within their own relationship.
“Culture” is of course a big umbrella for the arts, music, and literature. A lot of fads in sexual activity come through music, especially pop and rap music (ex: the “booty-eating revolution” came about because of sexual metaphors in rap music). These should be seen as fun and entertaining hints to look into what is being said and get informed.
I would also be remiss if I did not mention the role of Young Adult literature, which has been tremendously helpful to my LGBTQIA friends in better understanding their feelings about their bodies, their gender identity, and their sexual interests.
No matter what area of arts and culture you are getting your information, please see it as a “step” in the right direction rather than a destination. Keep looking, keep searching, keep growing.
Like the one you’re reading currently! Sex blogs like Sexuality & the City are a great (although broad) source for sexual education because you’re typically not hearing from someone who is paid to promote a product or say certain things. We at Sexuality & the City do not currently accept paid advertisements or do paid reviews. Sites and blogs like the one you are currently reading are written by real people talking about their real issues out of their own individual experiences – in other words, it’s “real talk.” You’re hearing unfiltered voices tell you whether the “newest” sexy thing to do is as fun as the magazines say it is and what it’s really like to be in a relationship.
This is absolutely, hands-down, the worst place to learn about sex. If you are learning about sex from porn, your education is essentially only as good as a 4th grader since that is the age most people become aware of pornography. You are learning all kinds of false interpretations and incorrect things about sexual activity – that all men have 10 inch penises and women always scream during an orgasm, for instance. Porn is meant to be entertainment and is not a reflection of reality. At all.
Stop watching porn to learn about sex! Just stop it! You’re doing damage to yourself, your partner, and your relationships this way.
This is the one most older adults try to avoid because they are either wary of technology, overwhelmed by it and not sure where to look, or are finding the wrong sources and laughing them off. More, by “new media” I am, of course, talking about YouTube, educational gaming, and podcasts. Many former adult film stars have taken a second career as sex educators and have channels on new media platforms that are popular, informative, and “listener-friendly” because they make the information provided accessible and put it into context. Nina Hartley is probably the most well known former adult stars utilizing new media because she was a popular actress in adult films for a long time.
Wherever you get your information, I really encourage you to find a source that is reputable, licensed or validated in some capacity, and that feels right for you. Some educators know their stuff, but address concerns not immediately relevant to you. Go at your own pace and take your time. What is true endures – it’ll be there when you come back from a break.