Many individuals’ early experiences with sex ed were laughably bad—we’re talking Mean Girls’ “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die” bad. And while these instances may be fun to giggle at in hindsight or when played up in a comedy, the lasting impact of poor sex education is no laughing matter. To make up for the lack of proper sex ed in our youth and even past then, it’s up to us as adults to learn, as well as unlearn toxic information from unreliable sources, in order to lead happy, healthy sex lives.
Below are just a few sexual wellness topics in which education and understanding tend to be inadequate.
Enthusiastic, Ongoing Consent
One of the very most basic requirements for sex is consent. In fact, sex without consent isn’t even sex; it’s assault. While “no means no” may be a common lesson taught to adolescents, this simple notion only scrapes the surface of what does and doesn’t constitute true consent. For instance, the absence of a “no” doesn’t automatically translate to a “yes.” The concept of enthusiastic consent invites people to seek out affirmative phrases, actions, and body language (such as active participation, verbal agreement, et al.) instead of looking at the lack of a “no” as an absolute “yes.” Another key element of consent that’s oft-ignored in discussions on the topic is that it must be o
ngoing, meaning that none of the participants change their minds before or during sexual activity. Consent is not a contract and can be revoked at any moment for any reason.
In an ideal world, the practice of consent would be wholly free of any gray areas, but life and sex are simply more complex than that. Some are of the thought that consent cannot be given by individuals under the influence of mind-altering substances, while others feel fully comfortable and autonomous saying “yes” to sexual activity after a glass of wine. Likewise, there are those who believe consent must be verbal and individuals who prefer using body language to convey their excitement. What’s most important is not adhering to a hard and fast set of societal rules but that all involved parties are on the same page about what consent means to them and that they respect each other’s boundaries. Talk to your partners about consent before things get intimate so you can have a clearheaded discussion and fully understand each other’s limits and communication styles regarding sex before actually engaging in the act.
The Reality of STIs
Especially in abstinence-only sex ed (if you can even call that sex ed), sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are often used as a cautionary tale of the dangers of sex. Books and slideshows would often depict STI-positive bodies in their most severe states of infection, using unnecessarily close-up shots of genitals with lesions or abnormal and excessive discharge as a scare tactic. While it’s true that STI symptoms can present in such a way, this isn’t always the case and certainly doesn’t demonstrate the full picture of what it’s like to have one. This treatment of STIs as if they were the boogeyman isn’t even an effective strategy for preventing their spread. What is effective is teaching preventative methods like barriers and other safer sex practices, management for STI-positive individuals, and promoting frequent testing and open, honest communication about your status with new partners (as well as their status).
Not only is using fearmongering in STI education ineffective, but the stigmatization of sexually transmitted infections is incredibly harmful to those living with them. The rarely-taught reality of incurable STIs is that, in most cases, symptom management is simple and ways to prevent the spread to another many and highly effective. A much better approach to teaching about sexually transmitted infections is to disclose all the available information and to do so with compassion.
How To Use Different Barrier Methods
Who doesn’t remember the classroom’s stifled laughter as their Math teacher turned sex educator for the day used a banana to demonstrate proper condom application? The approach certainly has its merits; bananas are quite phallic, making them a good substitute for an actual penis, and the absurdity (or at least absurd to a group of adolescents) of the situation made it a lesson that will stick with many of us for life. That being said, external condoms (condoms worn on the penis or penetrative object like a dildo) are hardly the only type of sexual barrier out there. There are also internal condoms (sometimes referred to as “female condoms”) worn on the inside of the vagina or rectum, dental dams for external protection during acts such as cunnilingus or analingus, and even gloves and finger cots can be used as safer sex methods.
Few sex ed courses teach about the variety of sexual barrier options, let alone how to use them. Seeing as how external condoms are only useful for a portion of the sexually active population, omitting other protective barriers from teachings causes a huge and harmful gap in safe sex knowledge. Whether you or your partner(s) has a penis or not, knowing what protective measures are available is crucial to a healthier and more enjoyable sex life. And once you know what’s out there, you must learn proper application to ensure efficiency. When doing your research, be sure to get your intel from a reputable source such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC,) which has instructions and visuals available on its website for how to properly use external condoms, internal condoms, and dental dams, respectively.
While the school system’s failure to provide comprehensive sexual education isn’t our fault, it is now our problem and one we are responsible for solving ourselves. Though this pursuit of knowledge may feel overwhelming at times, your sexual health and well-being (and society’s at large) are more than worth the effort. Instead of thinking of ongoing education and unlearning as a chore, try viewing it as a way to empower yourself and others. In gaining that knowledge, we not only help ourselves, but we can also help end the cycle of poor sex ed by teaching younger generations all the things we wish we knew when we were their age.