Why we need comprehensive sex ed

Editor’s Note: The author is a student in the spring 2011Women’s Studies Program Feminist Theory course at The University of Akron.

I was a senior in high school the first time I had sex.

I remember making the conscious decision that I was ready to move to the next level with my boyfriend of two years. I also remember thinking, “This is it?!” afterwards, when I did not feel any different and nothing had really changed.

I had sex. So what?

While my experience is nothing out of the ordinary, it is criticized by a large portion of America, fueled by the activism of the Right. Though media and culture promotes sex, actually having it before marriage is condemned.

This ideology has worked its way into our public school systems; under the leadership of George W. Bush, abstinence-only education is the only type of sex education that receives any federal funding. The curriculum “ensures that a generation of young Americans has been indoctrinated with messages about how wrong, dirty, and immoral premarital sex is, but also with subjective — and false- information” (Valenti, 2009: 102).

Luckily, I got “the talk”

I was lucky. I had a mom who insisted on having “the talk” with me when I was around 11 or 12. She made me sit and listen as she spelled out what sex was and how it would affect me. While her very traditional nature still shined through (I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone I was on birth control at 14, even though it was to correct a medical problem and not for sex), she made sure that I had real information and didn’t have to rely on friends or what they were going to teach in schools.

As awkward as that discussion was, in retrospect, I’m glad we had it.

Signing the pledge — or not

In the seventh grade, a faith-based organization came in to talk about STDs and sex. I don’t remember a single thing they said about the STDs, but I do remember the Virginity Pledges they passed out at the end of their presentation. I was supposed to sign the back of this card and pledge to God that I would save my virginity for my future husband.

While my most of my classmates immediately signed, I refused. Even my seventh grade self knew that something was not right about the process.

These actions permeate modern day culture. Such a high price is placed on virginity, while personal attributes are ignored. As Jessica Valenti claims, when young girls are taught about sex, “there’s not often talk of compassion, kindness, courage, or integrity. There is, however, a lot of talk about hymens (though the preferred words are undoubtedly more refined — think “virginity” and “chastity”): if we have them, when we’ll lose them, and under what circumstances we’ll be rid of them” (“No such thing,” 2009).

Abstinence-only education a failure

Many sex education programs separate the girls from the boys. The boys receive messages which reaffirm their traditional masculinity, while the girls hear the abstinence-only message, which defines them only in terms of their virginity (or lack thereof).

It’s clear that the current system of abstinence-only education is failing our youth. Abstinence until marriage was realistic when kids were hitting puberty at 15 and getting married at 16. Now, when girls are hitting puberty as young as eight, and the median age of marriage is in the late 20s, waiting so long is unlikely.

This came up in the 2008 presidential race, when Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol said “the best option is abstinence,” but added that she didn’t think that was “realistic” (“Bristol Palin: Abstinence,” 2009). We know that kids will have sex; why is it we insist on using fear and misinformation instead of arming them with facts and information to be safe and make better decisions?

Hope for comprehensive sex ed

There is some hope on the horizon. A bill called the “Repealing Ineffective and Incomplete Abstinence-Only Program Funding Act” was recently introduced in Congress. It would do exactly what its title states: repeal the earmarked dollars for abstinence only education and reallocate it for a more comprehensive program.

While it will face a number of challenges, especially by those on the Right trying to defund family planning organizations like Planned Parenthood, the bill is the first step towards eliminating the defunct abstinence only message — the same message that values a woman based only on her virginity.

Works Cited

  • Bristol Palin: Abstinence for all Teens ‘not realistic’. (2009, February 17). Retrieved from http://articles.cnn.com/2009-02-17/politics/bristol.palin.interview_1_bristol-palin-levi-johnston-daughter-of-alaska-gov?_s=PM:POLITICS.
  • No Such Thing as Virginity, Author Says. (2009, April 22). Retrieved from  http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/30353377/ns/today-books/
  • Valenti, J. (2009). The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

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