What is Good Sex Education

Abstinence-only Sex Education is neither good nor is it Sex Education and it is certainly NOT Rape Prevention.

Probably all education is but two things: first, the parrying of the ignorant children’s impetuous assault on the truth, and second, the gentle, imperceptible, step-by-step initiation of the humiliated children into the Lie. —Franz Kafka

Over the years, many people who have heard about my work, and who presently have or who have had children ages twelve to eighteen, assume that schools are bringing someone like me in regularly to talk to kids that age about sex, relationships, gender roles, sexual orientation, misogyny, date rape, homophobia and growing up with domestic violence, among other crucial topics. They hope someone is augmenting sex education curricula that are more significant for what they leave out—sex, relationships, gender roles, sexual orientation, misogyny, date rape, homophobia and growing up with domestic violence, among other crucial topics—than what they include—a compromised mess consisting of a smattering of biology, anatomy (with several important physical landmarks deleted) and stealth theology—all true to and offered within a context of age-old parental refusal to address any substantive issues regarding sexuality. “Don’t get her pregnant-education,” was how one boy summarized what he and so many other students had been forced to sit through. Another high school boy identified sex education as comprised solely of, “warnings about pregnancy, disease and death. ‘Sex, it will kill you,’ was their message,” he intoned ominously, parodying the exaggeratedly threatening manner of the teacher. 

Having some idea of the pressing needs of kids of this age, some adults pray that me, or someone like me, is talking to their kids because the adults know how little they have talked to their kids. Some want me to talk to their kids because they hear disturbing stories of unsafe sexual experimentation, acting-out and casual abuse from their kids who report what is really going on in grade schools, middle schools and high schools. These parents understand that anything kids do, they do within a vacuum created by adult inaction and uncaring and unwillingness to recognize the seriousness of what is going on to which all neglectful parents contribute. The few parents, mostly mothers, who have spoken honestly to their kids have been gratified but daunted when their kids bring their friends home and ask the parent, “Could you tell my friends that ‘sex stuff’ that you told me? My friends’ mothers won’t talk to them about anything.” 

When I ask students if their parents had spoken well about sex to them, a few always quickly answer, “Yes.” Others nod in the affirmative as well. Those students’ responses create the illusion that there are many parents who had educated well. The majority of students who didn’t answer include some who sit obviously astounded at the concept of parents (especially fathers) talking to their kids at all, let alone well. The truth is that very few parents educate well, but I don’t want students to feel as if I am just attacking their parents (or them) so rather than end up uselessly arguing, I ask one question by which the myth of parents who educate well about sexuality is effectively debunked. 

I ask, “Did those positive parental lessons include any mention of the words: pleasure, anal, cunnilingus, masturbation, hugging, prostate, mutually-pleasurable, clitoris, gentleness, heterosexual, licking, love, penis, sweaty, kindness, consensual, pornography, gender, sucking, role-playing, joyous, testicles, communicating, sweet, transgender, mutually-orgasmic, vulva, magical, softness, relationship-strengthening, fellatio, gay, kiss, meditative, silliness, lesbian, or foreplay among others?” By midway into the list they change their answer to “No, my parent(s) did not educate me well about sex. They never used one of those words. You’re right, they never talked about sex. Ever!” As that realization sweeps over all of them, they sit there stunned.

Some teens initially answer, “Yes” for several reasons, the least of which is more than a very few parents teaching well about sex. First: what little their parent(s) had said was more than what their friends reported their parents had said. It isn’t too hard to be better than people who say little or nothing, the most common parental response. 

Second: their parent(s) weren’t solely judgmental and condemning. They were accepting of (or resigned to) the fact of their teens engaging in sexual acts. Some parents gave boys condoms, again without scolding (or unfortunately, without any discussion about the surprisingly erotic potential of pre-emptive responsibility-taking). It doesn’t take much to be better than people who scold or shout, also common parental reactions. 

Third and most important reason: if teens admit how poorly their parent(s) and other adults had educated them, they would be compelled to admit how poorly educated they were about sex. They may suspect, or even admit to themselves, that there are things they don’t know. They can imagine no benefit to them in publicly admitting to their ignorance. “Oh great, another excuse bullies will use for hurting me,” they think to themselves. They fear that their ignorance is a failing of theirs and so they are resistant to facing the truth of what and how little they know. Thinking critically about the extent of their ignorance in the midst of an educational session removes their ability to pretend any longer about how little they do know

Their initial unwillingness to face and admit to their ignorance serves to cover for the real failure, that of most adults. Since the fact that adults have so thoroughly failed hasn’t occurred to most teens, they are not predisposed to think about how they will educate their kids differently in the future. Whether teens accept as “normal,” the omissions, misformation and silences that exemplified the family and school-based sex education they survived, and most do accept it as normal, how would they know where to even start in order to become better educators of their kids? Wanting to do better than their parents is a start, but they have had no hint of how they might first heal the hurt of having grown up mis-educated, neglected and misled by their parents and surrogate parents. 

We have never as a society tried to come to agreement about what education kids need to prepare them to enter into relationships, successfully maintain those relationships and, if necessary, civilly and non-violently end those relationships. We have never taught an understanding of sex that would lead to a practice of sex that is any more complex than “Insert Tab A into Slot B.” There has never been sexuality education that validates kids’ humanity, their sexuality. The adult message to kids is that sexlessness is the ideal for them to aspire to. That message is obscene to me. There is no affirmation, no confirmation and no celebration that they are human, sexual creatures. Kids are never reassured that their essences are real, valid and wonderful. As a result, they come to believe that sex is something separate and apart from themselves. It is almost as if someone else outside of them is engaging in sex and they are observers. This unreality is a measure of how utterly unprepared they are to think about or engage in sex as teens or as adults. Truly safe sex between two people requires emotional maturity and appreciation and understanding of their own and the other person’s bodies and hearts. Most teens aren’t ready for sex with another person (and neither will many of the adults those kids grow up to be ever be ready either).

Teens will eventually become sexual with others as adults, half have already engaged in sex with another person as a teen. And yet, families or sex education curricula rarely explore the complexity of the emotional and psychological aspects of sex between two people and the challenges of entering into and sustaining relationships and teach the skills necessary to do so. There has been little information imparted to kids to help them to eventually negotiate the challenges of successfully connecting sexually with another person while integrating that sexual connection into a strong, emotionally-honest relationship. At “best” we have prepared kids for nothing more challenging or intimate than casual sex.

As a starting point, we haven’t taught teens to imagine a practice of sex that at very least does not hurt either participant. Without a concept of such non-hurtful sex, kids’ unanswered questions about sex turn into problems when they act on their uninformed assumptions and incorrect guesses about what’s right and what’s normal. Most kids are confused about the differences between sex, sexual assault and sexual harassment, both the definitions and the behaviors. If few parents have educated their kids well about sex, even fewer even mentioned rape and thus saw no need to teach sexual ethics as a rape prevention effort either. When there is no teaching about sex and sexual ethics, and no help learning how to differentiate between sex and sexual assault, what someone can (and does) get away with becomes the standard, much more common and important than behaving ethically.  

“We have never reached consensus that it is important that boys learn the skills necessary to become good lovers, partners and fathers so we have never intentionally raised boys with instruction and encouragement (and adult models) to help them eventually to become sensitive lovers, committed partners or nurturing fathers.” —Joe Weinberg