Editor’s note: This piece contains a description of sexual assault and could be triggering for some readers.
My first sex ed class took place in the basement bedroom of my high school boyfriend.
Thankfully, it was safe, slow, and non-coercive.
My mom took me out of the sex ed portion of health class for religious reasons. She’d be disappointed to know that learning sex ed using hands-on material made the information stick much better.
After hearing that the majority of the content in the sex ed curriculum was focused around the rocket-science concept, “The best way to prevent pregnancy is by not having sex,” I wasn’t mad about missing out.
I did feel a lot of malice toward my mom, though, for taking me out of sex ed in high school.
I was already the weird, sheltered girl with very little friends who came in as a homeschooler — and I was always actively taking steps to avoid living up to that name — but to be honest, I felt robbed of my right to attend that class.
Around the same time, I had just gotten my first period.
I quickly came to learn that bodies are enigmas; they shift, bloat, and ooze. In a time with so much change, physically, emotionally, and mentally, being informed about these changes and how my social interactions would change due to them would have been helpful and comforting.
It is my body, after all. I live every moment in it. So why can’t I learn how to be safe with it?
An anonymous UW alum had a similar experience with sex ed and the push for abstinence-only, as opposed to other materials and instruction on contraceptives.
“It was like getting in a car and not knowing how to use turn signals,” he said.
Washington Referendum 90, the Sex Education in Public Schools Measure, is the result of backlash to a comprehensive sex education bill signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in March 2020. Whether or not the bill will be repealed is up to Washington voters, making this the first time in U.S. history that we will be voting on sex education in schools.
Comprehensive sex education means that the curriculum would cover all areas of sex education, including the social and emotional aspects of relationship-building, anatomy, and navigation of sexual situations.
“By teaching students at an early age about sex, body parts, what it means to be in a relationship, you empower them to be more confident and assertive to make better-informed decisions into adulthood,” Nicole McNichols, professor in the psychology department and advocate for the bill, said.
According to McNichols, countries that have strong sex education, such as the Netherlands, have lower rates of unplanned pregnancies and STIs.
“More women in [these] countries report that their first sexual experience felt positive and wasn’t coerced,” McNichols said.
The bill has been met with backlash from parents who worry about their children learning how sex works too early. Protesters have gathered at Olympia calling for the abolition of the bill, calling it “sex grooming.”
But why is the concept of human sexuality so taboo? We allow schools to teach our kids about difficult and complex concepts like integrals and U.S. history — what makes them unqualified to teach about consent and safe sex?
“No one is saying that children in kindergarten should learn about reproduction," McNichols said. "But they should be receiving accurate and comprehensive information about things like affirmative consent and what communication and empathy look and sound like in any healthy relationship. Children also deserve to know things like ‘good touch’ versus ‘bad touch’ and what to do if and when these boundaries feel threatened by another individual.“
To be quite honest, I need this language just as much as a kindergartner. I didn’t know what to say to the boy who slipped his hand into my skirt and fingered me on the dance floor of a frat basement freshman year.
Teaching children and teens language around sex and consent could be the difference between their safety and years of sexual trauma.
“There is no federally mandated sex education — it’s up to the states to decide on whether it is offered, and if so, what it includes.” McNichols said. “Very few states have truly comprehensive sex education that is required to be medically accurate, or that addresses LGBTQIA+ issues. In fact, many states insist this information be presented but in a negative light or taught as a sin.”
The bill will also require that LGBTQIA+ issues be talked about as early as kindergarten. In doing so, curricula will create an inclusive environment to help people understand their bodies and their health. According to Tahtzee Nico, director of the Q Center, people are gaslit into narratives that comprehensive queer sex education is trying to “turn kids gay” or “push an agenda,” when it’s actually just education for all types of people.
“Without the inclusions of our communities in sex education, youth are being implicitly taught through microinvalidation that queer bodies have no value, that our health and well being is inconsequential, that we don’t deserve to have curriculum that assists us in making informed decisions about our bodies,” Nico said in an email.
Nico is still skeptical of how these policies will be implemented in a substantial way. To what extent will sex education be queer inclusive, and what knowledge will educators be armed with?
“The policies are always nice — but we also need the intellectual and cultural work that goes into its sustainability,” Nico said in an email. “Those are the questions that are also important. Don’t get so lost in policy that you think we’re done now if this goes through — we aren’t.”
Reach writer Beth Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @serotoninprince
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