A Push for Change: Why Sex Ed Needs a Revamp Across the U.S.

Sex Ed was that oh-so-awkward lesson during the winter months at your local high school that crammed a lifetime’s worth of information into two or three short days during physical education. Most of us have taken some form of a sex health class before in our lives, or at least a small unit of it in health class, but how many of us can say what we learned in sex ed was impressionable? How many of us can say that it was tailored? And how many can say they learned more about themselves and felt more confident in their own bodies? 

Re-introduction to Sex Ed

I for one was not able to say any of those things in my own sex ed classes, but instead I felt smaller and even more confused. A feeling that some of my sex-scholar classmates in college have shared with me before, with one classmate describing the mini-unit as an “underwhelming experience.” Interestingly, we weren’t the only ones who thought our experience with sex ed was less than stimulating. Natalie Blanton at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga expresses that most of her students never had a proper sex ed session, but instead rely mainly on social media, sexually explicit content, and their peers. If sex ed is such a hot topic in U.S. schools, how come students prefer to get their information through peers and social media? Well, we have to think about what sex ed was intended to do for students.

The CDC defines sexual health education as a tool that “helps adolescents acquire knowledge and skills to prevent HIV, STD’s and unintended pregnancy.” It is also described as “a systematic approach informed by research and practice that emphasizes planned sequential learning across grade levels.” In the eyes of individuals like former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who signed for abstinence-only sex ed initiatives, this is a perfectly acceptable vision of sexual education. But, for those of us who have sat through the mundane curriculum that threw in a random birthing video, we know that sex is more than just watching out for STD’s, pregnancy, and being able to spell the word “fallopian” correctly. 

For most, sex is about pleasure, exploration, and freedom. So why is that not covered in our standard high school sexual health class curriculum? If sex truly encompasses all of these things, then why is it skipped over? It’s quite simple: education about sex comes from fear. Those who voiced opinions about the importance of sex health were afraid that the loose morality of freedom and sexual exploration was a threat to may white middle-classed individuals. This is where the notion of ‘proper sex’ is brought into the classroom and becomes the teachings of sex ed in high schools across America.

Proper Sex versus Pleasure Sex

Proper sex, described by Meg-John Baker, author of “Sexuality: A Graphic Guide” and “Enjoy Sex [how, when, and IF you want to]: A Practical and Inclusive Guide,” is having intercourse for procreative, performative, and “normal” sex. This is an overarching theme in the standard curriculum of U.S. schools for sex ed. Proper sex focuses on a few central themes: Abstinence only (abstaining from sex), Abstinence-Plus (encourages abstaining from sex but also provides information on safe sex and contraceptives… sounds a lot like traditional sex ed, right?), and Comprehensive Curricula (giving students the knowledge to make healthy choices in their sex life). But outside of this brick-and-mortar sex ed package lies a more familiar and interesting sex, pleasure sex. Pleasure sex is vast–depending on who you ask–and isn’t limited to anything. It stems from “vanilla sex,” all the way to BDSM, and everything and anything else that is in between.

The current curricula (Abstinence-Plus, Comprehensive Curricula, and Abstinence only), in theory, is the most comprehensive way to explain, ask, and interact in a sex ed class. For the most part sex ed has done a C+ job at keeping students informed the most basic information about sex and pregnancy. However, we have moved and are still moving away from proper sex and more recently into a pleasure sex era. With that needs to come the induction of gender and sexuality discussions: female and male pleasure, and queer-gender expression in sex ed classes. 

With the introduction of these units, self-exploration, individuality, and diversity are brought into the classroom through discussion and curriculum work. Not only does it include more perspectives in the conversation–like women and pleasure and LGBTQ+ experiences–but it breaks the illusion that there is one way to “do sex,” which is heavily implied in the current curriculum. By exploring these new and different areas, students can choose for themselves how their experiences should be shaped regarding their sex health and not the curriculum shaping them. 

Diversifying the Future of Sex Ed 

Our country’s history with gender and sexuality movements have shaped the way we view sex in relation to ourselves. The lessons of the past should make way for changes for the betterment of future generations. Conversations about sex and gender in a sex health class should be like trying a new brand of chocolate. Whether one has tried something different or continues to stick with what they’ve always stuck to, no one should be limited in their options because the store refuses to sell brands other than their own.

I have covered what sex ed is, what it is limited to, and what it omits versus what people have sex for. So where do we take all this from here? Now that we know the limits, we can improve upon them. The reconstruction of sexual education is a very important call to action. We must advocate for diversifying the dated standards of what sex ed was for many heterosexual Americans when the program first began, to what is being called for now which is an inclusive curriculum. It has to be revamped to address LGBTQ+ friends, the exploration of pleasure for women and men, queer sex discussions, and a discussion of gender and sexuality. 

This is a fight that has been ongoing for years and is still being fought. With individual states being left to decide the fate of sex ed, and whether it should continue to be taught in schools. The fear associated with “woke-ifying” sexual education comes from internalized fear from both white supremacist mindsets and traditional patriarchal ideologies, according to Eva Goldfarb at Montclair State University. People have always had a hard time adjusting to change. In this case, we have waited long enough for sex ed to change its agenda.

Article featured image courtesy of Freepik.

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