Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Who's REALLY Responsible for Teaching Teens About Sex?

Let's talk about tortoises and sex. But not tortoise sex, because I don't really know how they mate. Human sex. I know a fair bit more about their mating habits than those of tortoises. Here's a tortoise anatomy picture I found floating around the internet recently.

Above we have two people who know how tortoises work, two people who have never seen the inside of a tortoise before, and one person who has never seen the inside of a tortoise before and blames schools for not telling them how turtles work.
I hear lots of people-young people, mostly, since we're fresh out of school-blame schools for not teaching them how the world works. "I don't know how political parties work because my government teacher never taught me." "I'm broke because no one ever taught me how to stick to a budget." And the big one: "I don't know how sex works because my health teacher didn't give us a decent sex education unit."
Last month I went to my first bachelorette party. The bride was nineteen, and with the exception of the twenty three year old woman who hosted the party, everybody there graduated in the class of 2015. It was a clean party. No alcohol, since we're all under legal drinking age and most of us had religious drinking taboos besides. Bridal themed scavenger hunts and Pin the Tie on the Shirtless Guy Poster were enough to keep us entertained, we didn't need to play any raunchy games. Honestly, everyone's favorite part of the party was the chance to get together with girls we haven't seen since graduation. It's like a high school reunion, but with the people you actually like. The main topics of conversation were roommates, jobs, and college majors.
That's not to say we didn't talk about sex.
I don't usually have frank, open conversation about sex with girls my age, so when I do it always amazes me what people do and don't know. Two of my friends knew absolutely nothing about Where Babies Come From until tenth grade health class. Others knew way too much earlier on. At eighteen and nineteen, we're all technically adults, but still just as clueless as we were as teenagers.
My parents never sat me down and told me it was time to learn about sex. I'm the one who initiated that conversation. I was ten, maybe nine, and my mom mentioned over the dinner table that she was thinking about having another kid.
"How does that work, anyway?"
"We'll tell you after dinner."
My three younger brothers finished their taco soup and went off to watch TV. My parents explained the basics while I picked corn out of my soup with tortilla chips. When I knew all I wanted to know, I cleared my bowl. I took what I'd learned and turned it over in my head for the next few days. I had a children's encyclopedia and tried searching under "S" for sex (no results) and "L" for love, but that only explained the emotional aspects of a relationship. Sometime later that week, I ran up to my mom while she was weeding the garden and asked some follow up questions. I didn't view it as a landmark conversation until I got older and heard people gossip about getting The Talk.
Should every parent teach their kid about sex this way? No. Definitely not. Some kids are clueless and won't ever ask until you tell them. With those kids, you definitely need to sit them down and have The Talk. But I was just fine. Unlike lots of my friends, I wasn't scarred for life by The Talk. I loved it because it cleared up a lot of the misconceptions I had.
As a kid, I heard adults say "she has a baby in her tummy", so I honestly thought babies were stored in the same compartment as digested food. I assumed "womb" was a synonym for stomach because I didn't know what a uterus was. That was the big takeaway for me, not how-gasp! You can totally mash your private parts against somebody else's private parts and create a person. 
Over the years, I picked up additional tidbits of sexual knowledge. I never read a romance novel, watched sexy movies, or had a dirty minded friend. But I gleaned a thing or two from scenes in other books and movies. I listened to dirty jokes in the seventh grade locker room. I eavesdropped on the boys in my art class who sat at the next table over. One of them was pretty clueless, so his friends patiently explained terms and concepts he didn't understand. "Guys, what's a lesbian?" "It means gay, but only for girls." "Oh. Okay." 
Then I finally made it to eighth grade health class. Can we all have a moment of silence for all the health teachers in schools across the world? That's one job I never want. My middle school sex ed unit was light stuff compared to the course I'd take in high school two years later. It laid down the basics. We learned the anatomy terms for the male and female body, look at diagrams, discussed how sexual intercourse works, and covered fetal development from conception through birth.
Everybody took this course. You had to, if you want to pass the eighth grade. Yet I still had friends who didn't know anything about sex until high school health class. For that, they blame their parents.
Who's ultimately responsible for what teenagers know about sex? Schools? Parents? In all honesty, I think it's us. The teenagers. No, I don't mean you should skip off to porn land or corner your most promiscuous friend and make them give you the down and dirty details. I mean if you don't know something, it's your own fault, because you've had ample opportunities to learn it.
One of my friends who didn't know anything about sex read, watched, and performed in Les Miserables before hitting high school. If you haven't seen Les Mis lately, one of the main characters is a prostitute. I think that's a pretty big giveaway.
Valjean getting Fantine out of prostitution in the 2012 movie.
At my friend's recent bachelorette party, I used the word hymen in a casual conversation. The hymen is what breaks when a girl loses her virginity, though it can be broken in many other ways unrelated to sex, like if a gymnast falls down on a balance beam. I thought the existence and function of the hymen was common knowledge among our age group. But when I said it, the room fell dead silent.
 I panicked. Had I mixed it up with some other part of the body? Did I pronounce it wrong and look like an idiot? As the awkward silence stretch on, I asked, "Is that how you say it? Is that how it works?"
A girl told me that I was wrong, so I steered away from conversations of that sort for the rest of the night. Then I came home and asked my mom, who told me that I'd pronounced and described it correctly. Then she asked where I'd first learned the word hymen, from her or my health teacher.
I thought back and realized it was neither. Before the 2012 Olympics, I read an article about how Olympian women from certain Middle Eastern countries had to overcome cultural expectations that say a woman shouldn't strain herself physically. In many cultures breaking the hymen is equated with losing your virginity, even if you break it in athletic accident.
Of course my parents and my health teachers taught me what it meant to lose your virginity. But I learned that word, hymen, by reading sports news. My friends didn't stumble on that particular article during the 2012 Olympics, so they didn't know. I'm pretty sure it came up sometime in our health classes, but they forgot it. Most of what you learn in math and history class floats out of your brain during summer break. Why should health be any different?
I've seen news articles refer to "sex education" classes. To my knowledge, no high school anywhere in the US teaches a sex ed class. If you took one, please let me know. What we had was health class.
We learned about everyday matters like nutrition and exercise and covered serious topics, like drugs, mental illness, and yes, sex. But sex was a unit, not the entire class. It took a week and a half because we had plenty of other things to learn. I learned a few good, basic things about mental health from these classes. But most of my important mental health knowledge comes from reading formal articles, tumblr posts, novels with mentally ill characters, joining an anti-suicide club my senior year, talking to medical professionals, and having friends with mental illnesses. My classes were not the be all and end all of understanding mental health and I don't hold them accountable for what I don't know.
Lots of adults do. Particularly those parents who don't talk to their kids about sex and assume it will come up in school someday. Adults don't care too much about us satisfying our own curiosity, or about us learning one of the most basic functions of the human body. They want health classes to keep us from getting pregnant and catching STDs. They want this either via classes that teach us to save sex for marriage, or via classes that teach us how to use various types of birth control. Team Purity and Team Protection aren't so opposite as they seem to think, and the mistake they both make is assuming all teenagers want to have sex. Certainly some of us do. But for the most part, my friends and I are just interested in learning how sex works. We can apply that knowledge later in life. For now, just knowing is enough.
If your government class didn't teach you how political parties work, it's not their fault you don't know how to vote. It's your fault for not following the news, listening to conversations about politics, and seeing signs in your neighbors' front lawns. If you can't budget money, it's not your financial literacy teacher's fault. It's your fault for not watching how other people spend and basing your own money habits of theirs. If you don't know how to pick up a tortoise, it's not your biology teacher's fault for never showing you a skeleton. It's yours for never thinking, "Hey, I don't pick up my dog by his spine, so that's probably a bad idea for tortoises too."
There have been times in my life when I purposefully went to my parents, the Internet, encyclopedias, and "growing up for girls" books to learn about sex, but most of the time I didn't have to. If you don't know something about sex, it's your fault for not paying more attention to the world around you. The accountability is on your own head. 

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