|The Genderbread Person 2.0|
Thinking about my experiences with sex education, my mind immediately jumps to a handful of stories that highlighted what I didn’t learn in the medium-sized, predominantly white town where I spent most of my childhood.
In 5th grade, we were separated from the boys to learn about our own reproductive body parts (not others’) and how they related to puberty. Our prizes for successful completion of this week were a sample pack of sanitary napkins and/or a stick of deodorant--girls got both!
The next year we were taught co-educationally about HIV and watched “The Miracle of Life”. Although I didn’t really learn about sex itself (i.e., a behavior that could result in one of these outcomes), we certainly focused on abstaining from it. As a cradle Catholic, this message mirrored my worldview at the time, as evidenced by my slogan choice for our abstinence posters: “Wait until you’re wed/Before you go to bed!”
My 9th grade health class included a few lessons on HIV and other STDs. I don’t recall the same abstinence focus, but I also don’t remember much information on contraception--not even the quintessential “condom-on-a-banana” demonstration. In fact, I’m sure the latter would have stood out to me then with my firm worldview.
In high school, instances of sex ed was even fewer and farther between.
Students in the Home Economics class carried around baby dolls for a week or two to get a taste of parenting.
Those in Senior Social Studies class had the infamous “STD week” where students viewed an unforgettable slideshow with graphic depictions of possible consequences of unprotected sex.
Although I’d argue now that these topics only scratch the surface of what young people need to know, I unintentionally bypassed both of these “experiences” because neither class was required and anyone who chose an Advanced Placement (AP) social studies class that year also missed it. I’m sure the latter was simply a result of what teacher was willing to teach the material, but it’s also interesting to note that those who were on a more traditional, college-bound track didn’t get this information that others did. As if we all didn’t need the information.
In college, it finally happened.
I signed up for a popular class called Human Sexuality, because it was required by my research lab and--I’ll admit--I was mildly curious. I had no idea that this exposure to comprehensive sex education would expand my worldview so much and shift my academic and career trajectory to where I am today.
While this class brought to light all the “basic” sex education I hadn’t gotten in previous classes, it also made explicit so many implicit “lessons” I had learned throughout my upbringing. This class taught about how most, if not all, people’s sexual orientation falls on a spectrum rather than falling in some finite category. I also grew in my awareness of how non-normative genders, sexualities, and relationships are made invisible in mainstream conversation and dialogue.
Although I appreciated that this class normalized sexuality in a way I had never heard before, it also encouraged me to challenge all that I had ever considered to be “normal” or “natural”. Specifically, it became clear that I was socialized to follow strict rules and live by nearly impossible standards about sexuality that I had come to see as normal. Combined with my Ethnic & Women Studies coursework, I felt both helpless and empowered to think that there are so few things in this world that have a clear right or wrong answer.
One thing that feels clearly right to me is that people--youth and adults alike--need more information than they currently have to make the best, healthiest decisions they can for themselves, their partners, and their families. We can’t expect parents and teachers who had poor sex education themselves to be able to improve for the next generation without continued education and support for them. Moreover, young people shouldn’t have to rack up student debt and attend some fancy institution in order to access good, well-rounded information about the amazing diversity of human beings and their relationships. We all deserve the chance to make truly informed decisions about how to live authentically, love ourselves, and love others.
Aubrey Daquiz is a Filipina American who is serving as a Youth Organizing Intern with Forward Together.