Recently, I have begun reflecting more deeply on the messages I learned about sexuality and sex education when I was younger. I grew up in a Catholic household, the firstborn to Filipino American parents. We never discussed sex. Ever.
The rule in our home was to never even allude to sensuality and that was final. In addition, this rule was not up to either discussion or criticism. I remember hoping that one day I would receive the time-honored “talk.” Though I imagined discussing sex with my parents would be a bit uncomfortable, even awkward. I longed for this so-called talk. On some level, I suppose because having had it would demonstrate to me that my parents had a sense of trust in me and recognized me for the maturing young person I was at the time.
However, as much as I secretly hoped for the talk, it never happened. At least not with my mother and father. In addition to my natural curiosity regarding sex, I was an early bloomer. My first period came earlier than the majority of my peers. All of these changes that were happening to my body only increased my desire to learn more about sexuality.
To that end, I spent countless hours furtively reading puberty books and scouring popular women’s magazines. The mechanics of it all evaded me. From my very limited understanding, sex was all about pleasing a man and ensuring you never bored him or left him dissatisfied with your performance. Through this very limited lens of sexuality, I began to spend a lot of time collecting what I believed to be very useful information. I would try to commit to memory all of the hot tips and tricks. I read about and at the time this seemed paramount to me for a successful and healthy intimate relationship.
I attended a Catholic middle school which further impacted the way I viewed sexuality. Sex was made out to be inherently sinful and dirty. A disgrace one underwent solely for the sake of childbearing and nothing more. Teachers never discussed female or male anatomy, contraception, or consent. My classmates and I were warned against using contraceptives. These devices they told us, were a violation of God’s supreme will.
From the pulpits of Sunday Mass, I heard the same negative messages. “Sex is cheap,” one priest scoffed. I have never forgotten those words. Time went on and eventually, I received my first formal sexuality training during my sophomore year of high school. Although this seminar provided more useful information and was certainly less negative, the positive aspects of sex were not imparted to us.
The bulk of the discussion centered on STD prevention and condom use. While both of these topics are important, I felt like something was missing. Later that year in a health class, the teacher displayed horrifying pictures of what STD and STIs could look like. The only solution that was offered to avoid contracting an STD/STI was pure abstinence. Again sex was not discussed in a positive manner. As the negative messages accumulated, I began to internalize them. Doing so significantly altered my views toward sex for a very long time. All of these experiences left me with the impression that sex was a dangerous activity and as such was to be avoided at all costs.
I wish that growing up I had received a more positive introduction to sexuality rather than just information on contraceptive use, religious ideas surrounding sex, STD prevention, and reproduction. Sex is a significant part of health and wellness despite how different individual views may be surrounding the topic. Because of this, it is imperative that individuals receive unbiased, holistic sex education.
Recently, I realized that consent was never discussed in the context of sex until I entered college. Neither my Catholic middle school nor my high school touched on the subject. Sexual violence was similarly eliminated from the discussion. Providing communities with inclusive, non-judgemental sexual education can help individuals achieve healthy and satisfying interpersonal relationships, and may help to prevent sexual violence before it happens, by giving people the language and understanding they need. Sex education can enable people to better understand what consent is and what to do when personal choice and autonomy are violated.
Reformed sex education must include discussions on domestic and sexual violence, consent as a necessary and multi-stage process, and ultimately it should impart to its pupils that sex is a normal and healthy thing that individuals can choose to participate in or not. Having a personal choice should be emphasized in these discussions. Empowering people and providing them with accurate, unbiased knowledge can empower them to make decisions that are best for them as well as for their health.
Inclusivity is another aspect that needs to be incorporated into sex education. Most sex ed classes come from a rigidly heterosexual lens and thus they fail to serve the needs of their LGBTQ+ students. Sex is almost always referred to as penile penetration of a vagina, dismissing all other activities as not constitiuting “real sex.” Excluding LGBTQ+ students and their needs or concerns can make individuals feel excluded and stigmatized, further discouraging them from obtaining the resources and/or information they need.
Sex can be a contentious, divisive topic, but it plays a major role in our lives, and for that reason, improving the ways we teach sex education and the topics that are discussed can have a great impact on our communities and the health and happiness of its members.
We need to hear about consent way before college (if you’re able to attend) and ensure that individuals are equipped with the knowledge and resources they need to make informed decisions. Sex education should not exclude members of the LGBTQ+ community, but instead, it should recognize their need to be a part of the discussion and do its best to answer their questions and provide them with support.
Lastly, educators must recognize the importance of imparting positive messages around sex and refrain from a single-minded hyper-focus on abstinence, STD prevention, or contraception. While it is important topics to discuss contraception options and proper use, as well as how to prevent and treat STDs, it is equally important that a sex-positive framework is used for the benefit of sex ed students. Hopefully, in time, educators and school boards will adopt a more positive framework, that is not influenced by religious overtones so that widespread change can be enacted for the betterment of our communities.
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