Why Young Women Need to Talk About Sex

These days, sex education is a hot topic. On November 10, Yale University banned its widely celebrated “Sex Week,” a popular annual forum sponsoring sex education discussions and panels for students. Days later, Californian parents fumed over former porn star turned Entourage actress Sasha Grey reading to their first graders as part of the school’s guest reader initiative. The more promising news, however, pertains to the sexual education programs that are catching fire and praise for differing substantially from the common abstinence-centric or “disaster prevention” approaches and, instead, presenting young adults with a more comprehensive educational and emotional learning experience.

The direction of sex education proposed by these initiatives extends great promise for advancing young women’s sexual confidence and, if comparative studies are an accurate indicator, may lead to more effective preventative policies.   

The experts behind these initiatives acknowledge that 7 in 10 teens of both sexes will have had intercourse by age 19. These teens fill their knowledge void with highly unbalanced and often unsafe information. One issue that pro-reform experts recognize is the inherent bias against female sexual power that is propagated by current abstinence-centric policies due, in large part, to the male-generated message offered to teens by the alternative sources of sexual information: porn, Hollywood, and a more general high school machismo.

How have the new programs addressed this issue of bias? One New York program is attempting to supervise children in the safe, academic exploration of sexual positions and birth control methods while encouraging practical lessons such as mapping routes to STD clinics and comparing condom boxes on store shelves. All of these items share potential benefits for young, sexually-active women.

Sociologist Amy Schalet is also garnering attention for her highly publicized analysis of the Dutch method. This approach by Dutch parents treats teen sexuality as something natural and ensures that sex happens safely and as a part of "responsible parenting." Compared to the U.S. prevention-only model, this alternative method of dealing with the dangers of sexuality has been connected with an actual reduction in unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases (STD), and abortions. 

The final example is Abraham’s popular profile on the Sexuality and Society course offered at a private high school in Philadelphia. Here the teacher advances beyond the basics and tackles a most uncommon subject for teen sex ed: pleasure. One of the greatest upsides of teaching pleasure is that it introduces female agency, different types of orgasms, and cooperative pleasure seeking into teens’ sexual narrative which, again, is more generally filled with the imagery of hypo-misogynistic power relations and one-sided pleasure.

On top of reducing this pleasure bias, the liberal direction in sex ed may also help to address serious health issues, social dimensions, and the fluidity of sexuality that are often way beyond the scope of the typical semester or quarter long basics course. Several online commentators agree: Many young women are afraid to experiment due to rigid sexuality labels or are unaware that there are pleasurable alternatives to vaginal intercourse. These women may not feel empowered to reject sexual advances or activity that does not completely appeal to them due to social pressure or simply not knowing of alternatives.

If this past year’s anti-women’s rights agenda is any indication of the near-future challenges, a movement for a more responsible sex ed initiative will face significant obstacles to both its message and funding. Since states, or sometimes districts, typically control the content of sexual education courses, any change that does occur will likely take place at these levels which will therefore exaggerate the uneven development of sexual awareness across states. 

The heightened status of sexual education on the federal or state policy agendas will depend in part on the success of Democrats in the 2012 elections, but more importantly, it will require both an acknowledgment among Americans of an unavoidable teenage sexuality and a greater public demand for teaching sexual equality.

Photo Credit: RoRi630