As of today, only 30 states and the District of Columbia require sex education in the United States of America. Only 17 states require that information given in sex ed classes be medically accurate—that is, that the education young people receive is based in scientific fact. Only 20 states plus D.C. require any mention of birth-control options. This is the reality we live in.
Perhaps you had some form of sex education. If you did, it was likely the old “condom on a banana” demonstration—which is more like a joke than anything else. Perhaps you were in mix-gendered company, perhaps not. Either way, that demonstration made something very clear: Sex is between a cisgender man and a cisgender woman. A penis is always involved. There is no grey area, and no, you may not ask any questions. The end. “Boys get sex-ed lessons about what actions to take, while girls get lessons in how to respond to those actions,” Pam Shaffer, MFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells TheBody. “This does a huge disservice, because then kids are missing information about each other’s perspectives and are often cast in sexual roles they don’t relate to or understand.”
Or, perhaps your sex ed took on the all-too-common, far more sinister turn that many young people experience. If not, perhaps you’ve heard of it: A teacher passes around a flower (or sometimes a piece of gum) for students to crumple in their hand. They then pass it along to the next person who crumples it, passes it on, and so on. Why? To show how young women become “less pure” the more sex they have. “Would you want to take this flower home?” The teacher might ask the class. Thirty-seven states require abstinence-only education be included in sex-education programs, after all.
But there are other aspects of this overall lack of proper sex education that don’t get a ton of screen time. One thing that comes to mind? The way gender plays a pivotal role in the ways we understand ourselves as soon-to-be adult (presumably sexual) human beings.
Puberty and Heteronormative Culture
The conversations we have around sex and our bodies are highly gendered. When it comes to the conversations we have with young women (and those raised female), they are completely different to those we have with boys. The language we employ during puberty is a prime example of this.
Boys are told to expect bodily changes that take their sexuality into account. Young men are informed that they may experience nocturnal emissions and unexpected hard-ons in public spaces, whereas young women (and all people raised as young women) are told they make their adult debut with menstruation. That this is how we define the oncoming inevitability of the loss of childhood innocence leaves young women without the space to understand or explore their sexuality.
Sex and Heteronormative Culture
Like it or not, we’re still an extremely heteronormative world. Even when sex ed is “progressive,” there are still highly gendered aspects to the ways we talk about bodies, sex, and bodily development. Middle schoolers are regularly put into two different classrooms (boys and girls) to learn about puberty and development.
This contributes to our collective discomfort around sex and gender as a societal whole.
“While it is vital to teach children about safe boundaries regarding touch and their own bodies, separating kids by perceived gender for sex-ed classes only reinforces the narrative that certain body parts and sensations are shameful. Otherwise we would be able to discuss them all together,” says Shaffer.
Anne Hodder-Shipp, a multi-certified sex educator and founder of Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, a sex-education and professional-development organization, tells TheBody that these gendered separations are steeped in our culture’s deep heteronormative roots. “Gender plays a major role in many people’s lives, and much of our traditional culture was built around gender roles and expectations,” she says. “The idea [is] that we can predict or expect someone to behave, look, or feel a certain way based solely on their gender and, in turn, limit and cherry-pick the sexual health information they receive.”
STI Risk and Heteronormative Culture
Remember when we said that only 20 states talk about birth control? Those are the only states where kids are getting any form of usable intel on how to have heterosexual sex safely. We’re so terrified of young people having sex (which they do, regardless of what we want to believe), that we leave them ill-equipped to handle sexual situations when (not if) they arise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young people are by far the most likely cohort to contract HIV, compared to their older counterparts.
Why? Because young people don’t know how to use condoms properly. Because young people only hear about condoms in reference to vaginal intercourse and never about oral or anal intercourse. Queer kids don’t even get brief lesson in how they might engage safely with same-sex partners. Did you ever hear the terms “female condom” or “internal condom” when you were a kid? Yeah, probably not.
While gendered sex education that includes conversations about birth control and condoms contains most of the important information that can help prevent HIV risk, it still puts boys in the power position and girls in the receiver position. It falls on young men to “handle” putting the condom on correctly. Meanwhile, condoms only have an 85% overall effectiveness rate at preventing pregnancy, due to improper application.
An Overhaul of the Language We Use With Kids
The language we employ when teaching young people about their bodies is just as important as having comprehensive sex education. “Much of the language used in gendered sex-ed classes helps reinforce gender stereotypes, especially ones related to sexual expression, our bodies, consent, and power dynamics,” explains Hodder-Shipp. “For instance, referring to emotions as feminine or masculine, or referring to sexual or reproductive anatomy as ‘male’ or ‘female’ automatically categorizes and separates emotions and body parts that are actually universal to all humans.”
The thing is, we’re all sexual beings, no matter what our gender. We need to give all kids the space to grow and learn about themselves and each other in ways that don’t set up barriers. When we define kids inside of strict gender norms, we create room for harm. “These young people then age into adults whose sex and relationship education was (and still is) based mostly on gender stereotypes and trial and error, and they may still be engaging in harmful behavior patterns they picked up when they were young without even realizing it,” Hodder-Shipp tells us. “Young people deserve more than that.”