If you knew me in High School, you know I had no need for SexEd while I was a teenager. I was hyperbolically academic, awkwardly clothed in thrift store cardigans and my role model was Rory Gilmore. And despite the fact that I’m pretty sure I masturbated embryonically and definitely had a strong curiosity in the subject of sex, even if just pixilated hypothetical sex, there was no way I was getting laid while I still roamed the hallowed halls of Preble High.
Yet somehow when my best friend decided to start having sex our senior year, I knew to google Planned Parenthood and look up the local number. I also knew the advantages of condoms versus the pill. And I knew you could get gonorrhea in the throat from a blowjob.
To this day I’m slightly baffled how I knew all this since I had a) never had sex and b) had never had SedEd. Although I’m foggy on many of the details of where my virgin self picked up all these details I’m pretty sure the knowledge came from three distinct sources: 1) Whatever information I could glean from the internet after my parents went to bed that would satisfy some of my growing curiosity for the birds and the bees and s and m 2) peers who usually were informed by older siblings or open hippy parents, god bless them or 3) in a few particular cases, specifically the gonorrhea in the throat example, Lifetime movies.
As I watched the fourth season of The Wire this weekend from my sick bed, I realized not all kids are as lucky as I was. For starters not all are blessed with braces and post-pubescent baby fat; some teenagers are attractive and can indeed attract sexual partners. And with this attraction comes all the complications of sex but with none of the formal or informal education.
I realize The Wire is not real life but after watching a recent local TV report about the lack of SexEd in Chicago, I’m beginning to believe it is not so far off. In addition to the “horrifying” fact that Chicago’s young people have the highest rate of gonorrhea in the U.S. (which also means Chicago has the highest rate of reporting and treating of that STI), the report also examines the schools’ role in this “epidemic.” A CPS grad, who is interviewed in cognito because of the extreme stigmas associated with underage sex, says she didn’t learn anything about sex, pregnancy or STIs in school. She learned about these things instead via first hand experience, aka two pregnancies and a Chlamydia infection.
It seems that whether we are in a fictitious Baltimore, or home sweet home in Chicago, we ignore teen sex. We pretend our 14 year olds aren’t having sex because it is easier to think of them as children than as complex human beings with a range of desires and emotions. Other than being naïve, this is dangerous.
Luckily there is a statewide movement to educate Chicago youth with age-appropriate SexEd. A bill called the Comprehensive Health Education Act or HB 3027 is currently looking to gain support in the IL legislature for a vote. A fact sheet is available on the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health website.
To be totally honest, I wish 14 year olds weren’t having sex. Looking back at my 8th grade picture, I’m sporting a Tommy Hilfiger shirt I wore about every 3 days, braces with bright yellow rubber bands and an uncomfortable smile of someone not quite used to their own skin. Looking back, I’m delighted I had time to grown into my skin before rubbing it against someone else’s.
But not everyone is fortunate enough to have my bad fashion sense and awkwardness; not everyone’s journey is my own; some teenagers are going to have probably awkward terrible 5-minute sex. We can’t stop this and realistically we don’t always need to stop this as it is part of growing up. But we can educate these little humping bunnies along the way so they stop passing around gonorrhea like some smuckers lip balm. We can give them more than some passed down information from siblings or inferred knowledge from American Pie. And for the ones not curious enough to WebMD “safe sex” we can give them the information in a handy worksheet, hopefully with smiling sex organs cartoons.
Something struck me at the end of the Chicago TV report. When asked what she wished she had learned, the CPS grad listed the basics, information on STIs and pregnancy but then she also added one more thing. She said she wish she had learned “self esteem, everything a woman needs to grown.”
It is this last bit that you can’t absorb from the glow of the internet nor from snippets of lifetime movies. It is this last bit that took me years to personally learn after years of confusing messages from the media about sex.
In the past decade we have put major educational resources towards abstinence only education and classes that are proven not only ineffective but also teach girls that if they have sex they are like sucked candy and that they need to be like quiet maidens.
The Comprehensive Sex Ed Bill isn’t just to teach kids to put a condom on a banana or how you can get knocked up even if he pulls out, it is to teach kids that sex has dangers and consequences but also ways to manage risk; that sex is a physical act between consenting people who respect each other; that sex is sex is a part of life, not your whole life; that sex does not make you used candy.
Really this bill is undoing the damage of a decade of bad lifetime movies and worse abstinence – only education programs. It is the kind of education I wish I had had so I was so shocked and disgusted the first time I saw a penis (at age 35 for my future children) and it wasn’t yellow and curved to the right.
For a glimpse into SexEd done right, check out this NYTimes article.