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Let’s Talk About Sex

Comprehensive sex education matters more than you might think

By Brianna J. Suslovic

The Harvard Independent’s Sex Survey is an annual source of amusement for me. I love reading about my anonymous classmates’ sexual exploits, but it always gets me thinking: How many of us are actually aware of what safer sex looks like, and how many of us properly put that safer sex into practice? How many of us know what consent looks like in practice? While educational standards in subjects like math or English tend to be relatively standardized across the country, the standards for sex education in the United States are all over the place—a “hot mess,” so to speak.

Let’s be honest. Sex happens. It happens to college students. It also happens before college. We don’t talk about it, but it happens. How many Americans under 21 are denied a proper education before they have sex for the first time?

Let me pause here and explain what I mean by a “proper education.” Proper sex education is medically accurate. Proper sex education is culturally appropriate and age appropriate. Proper sex includes information on multiple forms of STI and pregnancy prevention–not just abstinence. Proper sex education teaches us how to ask for and give affirmative consent. Especially in light of recent survey results, I’m inclined to say that we’re all deserving of a proper sex education.

Other countries have beaten us to the punch on this one. The Netherlands made headlines earlier this year for their comprehensive sexuality education curriculum, which starts in schools when kids are as young as four years old. The conversation begins with having crushes and giving consent to hugs and other forms of nonsexual intimacy. In later years, the curriculum introduces conversations about self-image and gender, finally arriving at conversations about sexual orientation and contraceptive options. Seems legit.

The results speak for themselves. The World Bank reports that the 2013 teen birth rate in the Netherlands was close to one-seventh of the U.S. teen birth rate. I’d like to hope that there’s a causative relationship between unplanned pregnancy in adolescents and the quality of the sexuality education that they receive in school. What is the U.S. doing wrong?

Let’s take, for example, my home state. New York—a seemingly progressive place. I did some research to contextualize my own disappointing experiences with sex education in school. The shocker: Sex education actually isn’t mandated in New York’s public schools. Further, New York has no legislative requirements for sex education when public schools choose to provide it. Though it was vastly incomplete, I received any sexual education at all only because I happened to attend a public school, one that radically decided to give its students an awkward briefing on their sexualities. In fact, only 22 states plus Washington, D.C., mandate sex education. Only 13 states require that sex education be medically accurate. I guess the rest of the nation’s sex educators can pull their information from simply wherever—and I’m not confident that our parents can handle the medically accurate conversations that we need answered on their own.

I’m sure that some New Yorkers receive age appropriate, culturally competent, inclusive sexuality education. I just wasn’t one of them. My sex education emphasized abstinence, focused on grossing me out with pictures of sexually transmitted diseases, and taught me nothing about how to have safer sex as a lesbian. I walked away from health class with a vague understanding of the risks of sex, the importance of condoms in HIV prevention, and the value of abstinence in preventing the spread of STIs. That’s a good sign, since New York does mandate discussion of HIV prevention that includes information on condoms while stressing abstinence. But there is so much more to say about sex.

In addition to information gaps in sex education, there’s an awkwardness that surrounds the conversation. If we’re just talking about how to prevent STIs and unintended pregnancy, we’re having an incomplete conversation. How can we normalize sex and sexuality? Why do sex education programs mobilize fear as a teaching tool? Why aren’t sex education programs required to emphasize consent in each and every sexual and nonsexual encounter we have? How can we include diverse sexualities and gender identities in conversations about STIs and unintended pregnancy prevention?

I’d like to see sexuality education that focuses on sexuality as a part of a broader humanity. Most humans are sexual beings. Humans experience sexual attraction in different ways, and those differences are completely okay. There are safe and unsafe ways to act on sexual attraction, and partners should have a conversation about how they will be safe in their sexual encounters beforehand. Acting on sexual attraction should only occur when everyone gives consent to those actions. It’s normal to take pleasure when safely and consensually acting on sexual attraction. It’s really that simple. There are clear ways to translate these concepts into different age-appropriate and culturally competent contexts. In fact, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States has already done it.

Learning how to talk about my body without blushing, learning that saying no and saying yes are important parts of sex, and learning that my attractions are normal—these are really basic components of the comprehensive sex education that I didn’t receive. Comprehensive discussion of my identity, my body, my safety, and my rights would have been incredibly helpful for high-school me. I’m glad we’ve got Sex Week and Sexual Health And Relationship Counselors (formerly PCC) on campus, but our pre-college sex educations could have probably been better, right? Advocating for standardized comprehensive sexuality education is the next step toward removing the awkwardness and increasing the safety, pleasure, and comfort of each and every encounter we engage in.

Brianna J. Suslovic ’16 is a joint social anthropology and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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