In the early 1990’s, there was a massive legal battle over sex education in the school district where I grew up. A very conservative group of Christians had convinced the school board (hell, they probably were the school board) to adopt an abstinence-only program. Another group sued, claiming this curriculum forced religious beliefs on students and taught students incorrect information.
What came out of this massive brew-ha-ha was the mess I, a ninth grader, had the pleasure of experiencing. My school was the second best public school in the state, but yet, my teachers could be suspended or fired if they answered students’ questions about sex, bodies, and sexuality. Several of my fellow students went on to study at Ivy League schools, yet we were taught from books with lines blacked out about how condoms prevented only 22% of pregnancies if used correctly. My school offered over ten AP classes, but also taught us that “automobiles” were a leading cause of sex.
In other words, we were a very well-educated bunch, but we hadn’t a clue when it came to sex education.
My parents were even less helpful. My mom didn’t even explain sex; she thought letting me watch R-rated movies and giving me an American Girl book about “your body” was enough. She bought me some pads and told me to ask my friends how to use tampons. She said, “don’t get pregnant.” My dad left when I was 12, teaching me that the most valuable relationship skill I could cultivate is how to emotionally shut off when things get difficult.
I became sexually active young. Thankfully I stumbled through early sex experiences with few permanent scars. I didn’t use a condom the first time I had penis-vagina intercourse with a man. I didn’t know that oral sex could spread STI’s. When I started exploring my attractions for women, I had no idea what I was doing. None. I had no relationship communication skills, which quickly backfired as I learned the hard way with my first girlfriend. I thought jealousy was a requirement for relationships; I thought it was better to talk behind her back about how I felt than to talk to her.
I survived without an STI, without getting pregnant, and I still talk with my ex. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it out of high school without getting raped. I don’t know if sex education could have changed that, but I do think it could have changed my response. I was under the misconception that women are raped by strangers, not by their friends, their dates, their acquaintances. For years, I thought I had simply “hooked up” with a friend when I was blacked out. I wasn’t introduced to the idea of consent until I was 18 – three years after being raped. Three years after that healing process should have started. Three years too late for me to do anything to prevent the rape.
After years of stumbling in the dark, running into brick walls, and making up answers to questions, I started doing some serious research. I educated myself. I found factual, intelligent resources like Scarleteen, and I started passing the information on. My friends would email me, asking where to get STI tested and how to put on a condom, and I went looking for the best answers. I started a hotly contested sex column at my college, implemented a Safe Sex Week, and pushed the Resident Advisors to make condoms available in all the dorms – not simply across campus at the health center. I got HIV/AIDS tested, and I accompanied anyone who needed a friend to hold their hand at the clinic. I started a Safe Zone program on campus for queer and questioning students, and I challenged professors to think about how the exclusion of LGBT people from history, sex education, health curriculum, and other disciplines hurt students by denying them information. I started exploring my own sexuality in healthy ways – exploring consent and kink, experimenting with new sex positions and partners, examining my understanding of monogamy, jealousy, and communication in relationships.
At the root of what drove me to keep pushing boundaries, to keep educating myself and others was a need to not see my friends stumble in the dark. If you don’t know how to protect yourself, you won’t. If you don’t know how to get tested, you won’t. If you don’t know how to navigate consent and set your own boundaries, you won’t. Knowledge is powerful. It takes knowledge to plan to not get pregnant, to plan to prevent STI’s, to plan to get good healthcare. It takes knowledge (and practice!) have great sex and build strong relationships. Scarleteen is knowledge. Scarleteen is the best resource for fighting the bullshit and lies our schools (and sometimes, our parents) taught us.
We need more information, not less. We need to become empowered through knowledge, not denied the ability to make informed choices. We need love and real answers. We need all sex education to be like Scarleteen.
Scarleteen wouldn’t exist without the donations of people who care about helping young people. Please make a donation. Please give the gift of sex education. Give youth the help and information they need.