Columns

Hu ’18: Why we need comprehensive sex ed

By
Opinions Editor
Friday, February 12, 2016

When I was 10 years old, I first learned about sex from a book: “Lovingly Alice,” a novel about a fifth-grade girl like me. In it, the main character, Alice, asks her single father about the birds and the bees, and he gives a pretty frank response. A rather detailed discussion about the mechanics of sex follows, and as I read, my feelings of curiosity and aghast mimicked Alice’s. “But where do people do it?” Alice asks at one point. “In the backyard,” her older brother jokes. Her father then disapprovingly corrects that people usually do it in the bedroom, leaving Alice slightly confused. I remember also being puzzled — what was wrong with the backyard?

I ran to my mom immediately after finishing the passage, eager to drill her with questions of my own. She was surprised when I brought it up, and once she reluctantly realized there was no evading my curiosity, she told me an analogy with tadpoles and eggs. She told me that it was something only “mommies and daddies” did and that it wasn’t something I would have to worry about for a long time. I didn’t really understand, but I was satisfied enough with the information she gave me.

After this initial encounter, I retained a surprising amount of naivete about sex for a pretty long time. I spent my middle school years in China, where not only was sex education essentially non-existent, but sex itself was established as a taboo topic both at school and at home. So when I started high school back in America at age 14, all I really had was the rudimentary knowledge I’d learned back in fifth grade. I didn’t know what a boner or an orgasm or masturbation was. I thought oral sex referred to kissing and that “condom” was short for “condominium.” I had a friend who thought a facelift and a blowjob were the same thing — types of cosmetology surgery. I suppose, in comparison, all that’s not nearly as bad as the cluelessness my parents experienced during college in China, where it was commonly thought that if you sat on the same bench with someone of the opposite sex, you would become pregnant. 

My first encounter with sex education began that year in my health class. Our sex unit covered basic anatomy of both male and female genitalia, scarily detailed coverage of sexually transmitted diseases and a few forms of birth control. While my teacher acknowledged condoms and the Pill, he preached abstinence above all, emphasizing that abstinence was the only way not to become pregnant or catch an STD. I remember leaving class that day freaked out by pictures of terrible gonorrhea and how easy it was to get knocked up. Sex was scary.

But it isn’t rare that I received my sex education so late — it’s actually rare that I received it at all. Only 23 states mandate sex ed, and out of those, only 13 require that the instruction be medically accurate. Pennsylvania is not one of them, so it was perfectly legal for my teacher to tell us that you could catch an STD even if you wore a condom, which is incorrect. In fact, it’d be perfectly legal for my teacher to teach us that if we got pregnant, we would die. And considering how much he exaggerated the dangerous nature of sex, that honestly isn’t very far from what he did.

Abstinence-only programs like the one I experienced are extremely prevalent. Thirty-seven states require information on abstinence be provided if sex ed is taught, and 25 of those states require that abstinence be stressed. In contrast, only 18 states require teaching information about contraceptives. And while there’s nothing wrong with abstinence itself, it shouldn’t be drilled as the only road you can take. Not only is it impractical — according to the Centers for Disease Control, most Americans have had more than one sexual partner in their lifetimes, and they start having sex at an average age of 17 — but the fact of the matter is that people will, and are entitled to, make different choices about their sex lives. Rather than deny this reality, we ought to focus on providing comprehensive sex education about some of the most important and inevitable decisions teenagers will make.

Because there’s more to sex than understanding the anatomical workings of sperm and eggs. Because avoiding the discussion of having sex is at best a short-sighted solution. Because people should be informed of the variety of options they have when it comes to sex and contraception. Because topics like consent, sexual orientation, pregnancy, prejudice and sexual assault are complex issues that need to be addressed. Because while it’s funny to recount how confused I was about sex in ninth grade, many college students today are still confused about sex and consent — and that’s not just problematic, it’s potentially dangerous.

And because unlike trigonometry, human sexuality is something you actually need to know about for the rest of your life.

Margaret Hu ’18 can be contacted at margaret_hu@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.