Dear Ohio: Let's Talk About Sex

This just in: The Ohio House Finance Committee voted to adopt a state budget amendment requiring that all of its schools will receive "abstinence only" sex-ed. 

Um. I'm sorry, but we need a minute here. What?

Growing up at a small private school, my sex education was pretty abysmal. I distinctly remember one of my teachers holding up two McDonalds cheeseburgers, one with a bite out of it, the other without. "Which would you rather have?" she asked, glaring at us. Although she didn’t explicitly say it, from a young age the message was clear: If you have sex before you are married, you are clearly "damaged goods," and therefore an unsuitable marriage partner.

This approach is simply not acceptable. Sex is a normal part of life, a very human thing to do. Sure, you can have your opinion on when it should happen and with who and where etc, but teaching our children that if you have sex outside of marriage you’re “damaged” creates all kinds of problems. I have heard several young couples express that the way sex was presented to them throughout their lives caused severe feelings of guilt and anxiety towards it, even once married. It's like they were told their whole life that "sex is bad, don't do it" and then suddenly were expected to jump right in and do it all the time after their wedding. Understandably, this creates an unhelpful mental disconnect. Similarly, teaching this “damaged goods” mentality ostracizes and condemns those in the community that have been sexually active before marriage.

So how does all this negative press start? Well, for one thing, there are the effects of a historically patriarchal culture that has both feared and oppressed women's sexuality for centuries. That's a topic for a whole separate article (or book...or volume...)

And for a moment, let's set aside the church, which is notorious for condemning sexual sin almost to the point of fetishizing it

No, right now I want to focus on sex ed, the kind we're taught (or not taught) in school. 

For me, it all began in the fifth grade when I was sent home with a book called Preparing for Adolescence. My parents were instructed to read it with me, a horrifying experience for both parties. Thankfully, my mother was very practical about the matter, explaining both sex and menstruation to me in sensible, physiological terms. I walked away with only the very basics but without the negative connotations. For this, I am thankful. 

Others were not so lucky. Many seemed to think sex was dirty and inherently wrong. We were not taught otherwise; my fifth grade sex-ed class consisted largely of sitting in an all-girl classroom being told to say the word "penis" out loud. 

But fifth grade sex-ed isn't the biggest issue here. Generally 9 or 10-year-olds don't need to know much more than what happens on a very fundamental level, e.g. where babies come from.

Yet in high school the situation did not improve. I don't know how this works in other schools, but in my private, Christian high school the only sex-related material I came across was in my senior physiology class. We learned the proper terminology for gonads and extensively studied the reproductive system, but sex was never mentioned apart from the role it plays in procreation. In fact, the closest thing to a sex ed talk I ever received post-middle school was the day we watched live births featuring varying degrees of carnage. Believe me, after 18 years of "abstinence only" conversations it still wasn't until I saw an infant crowing that I got the message

But all trauma aside, here’s what I find interesting: We were taught all of the male anatomy, from the external genitalia to the internal vas deferens. But when it came to women, we learned only about the internal structures, the ovaries, vagina, fallopian tubes. Everything else — the labia, clitoris, hymen, etc. — was completely blocked out of the picture.

Perhaps this lack of information was simply because we were not, in fact, in a sex-ed class and were focusing purely on reproduction. But I've also found this to be the case in a frighteningly broader context. 

Sure, the female vulva is less, erm, prominent than the male external genitalia, but surely that does not negate its importance, let alone existence. By not teaching women (and men) about the complexity of the female vulva and capacity for orgasm, we enforce long-held cultural ideas that limit women’s sexuality to childbearing and passivity. Even now, I am appalled at how many people (men and women alike) believe that women are capable of achieving two different kinds of orgasm, clitoral and vaginal. This idea was originally introduced by Freud (recall how he also thought all women desired to posses a penis) back in the early 1900s, and is overwhelmingly false

Which brings me to another point. For years, I grew up thinking the clitoris was minuscule, a tiny little "lady dick," as a friend of mine likes to put it. I can understand the connection, the clitoris is made of the same erectile tissue as the penis. However, what I didn't learn until far too late is that the clitoris is in fact a much larger tissue than what is visible. The majority of the clitoris is internal, extending around the surrounding vestibule bulb. 

But since the clitoris technically does not, as far as we know, serve a reproductive function, it is consistently looked over and ignored in sex-education classes. 

Again, I approach this topic as an vehement feminist born and raised in a private, religiously-affiliated education system. I understand that many people did not have as lousy a sex-ed experience as I did. However, I’m also aware that many people have it much worse

But all background aside, what baffles and upsets me is the fact that this is still a discussion. Look at the statistics: According to a recent study at the University of Washington, teens who receive comprehensive sex education are 60% less likely to accidentally get pregnant than those who receive abstinence-only or no sex education. Let me rephrase that. Teaching people about sexually transmitted diseases and contraception gives them the tools to avoid unwanted pregnancy and infections. Leaving them in the dark? Not so effective. Because the truth is, young people have sex. Yes, even Christians

Don’t get me wrong, valuing abstinence isn’t the problem. This is a widely held belief, especially in the religious community. And that's okay — the issue here is not with the promotion of abstinence, but with the refusal to acknowledge that not only do teens engage in sexual behavior, they are curious about it. Withholding information from them doesn’t make sex less accessible, it lowers the stakes. Private and Christian schools can offer comprehensive sexual education while still encouraging teens to wait until marriage. If we inform our teens of both the facts and consequences of unprotected sex, it can become less mysterious and hopefully a little less enticing. 

So please, Ohio, I implore you. Don’t pull a Middle Ages and pretend that things will go away if you don’t talk about them. I look forward to the day when sex is no longer taboo or stigmatized, but is instead something we can discuss openly and honestly both with our teenagers and with each other.