Where I grew up, in the buckle of the Bible Belt, sex, when it was discussed at all, was presented as something to be feared -- it bred diseases and unwanted babies. I got my first inklings of what sex actually involved not in a classroom but rather from
rumors spread by girlfriends in the bathroom at sleep-away camp. My first classroom sex talk was a "beware the period" lecture that took place after the boys were safely removed to play kickball. In high school, my teacher -- Ski Slope Barbie's doppelganger, resplendent in metallic sweats -- gesticulated toward a plastic skeleton's (nonexistent) vagina. She meekly presented the alarming facts about diseases, unwanted pregnancies and AIDS, for which my state had some of the highest rates in the country.
If there's one thing women share, it's proverbial horror stories of early sexual discovery -- in classrooms, bathrooms or late night sleepover conversations. Which is why New York State's recent mandate that sex education in public schools include birth control methodologies and advice about when to become sexual be rolled into a mixed-gender health class is a good thing.
There is every indication that people who have sex education are better adjusted sexually," said Professor of Anthropology at Rutgets, Dr. Helen Fisher when I called to ask her about it. The new law puts New York leagues ahead of states like Georgia, which prioritizes abstinence and does not require contraception, and Montana, which requires no sex education at all.
But the difficulty we've had establishing informative, effective, non-cringe-worthy sex education in the U.S., and the bad experiences so many of us had with sex ed, raise a larger question: How does sex education shape how and if women become healthy sexual beings?
First of All, It's Not 'Organ Recital'
Fisher said students years ago nicknamed sterile, fact-based sex education "organ recital." She sympathized with them -- it becomes easy to disconnect from a subject taught in a boring way. Under this umbrella can also fall abstinence-based education and the oodles of evidence proving that just teaching teens to avoid sex not only doesn't prevent them from having sex but also could put them at an increased risk. Rates of unwanted pregnancy and STDs are higher among groups who are only taught not to have sex. When sex ed does lead women to delay sexual experience, Fisher points out, they often engage impulsively later without protection or knowledge.
In other words, limiting resources and only pointing to body parts on a chart or diagram are not ways to produce sexually empowered women. Instead, they lead to women who are misinformed, or just bored. Director of The Medical Center for Female Sexuality in New York, Bat Sheva Marcus eschews, "Reproduction-and-How-Not-To-Get-Pregnant Education," in favor of a tender approach that includes -- wait for it -- how to have sex in the first place. Now that is interesting. She employs the analogy of breastfeeding, an activity that is natural and difficult, and one women must learn how to perform. The same goes for sex, she says. Marcus champions giving women a road map to demystify the sexual experience, and then encouraging them toward informed.
Learn How to Say No -- And Yes
It can take a lifetime to learn how to choose sex with the right person, but it's important to encourage young women in that process. "Not telling you that you should or shouldn't," she said. "Simply telling you how to handle what goes on, emotionally, physically, spiritually and how to handle parents and pressure." Sex ed should also help teens handle those difficult, uncomfortable conversations with parents about sex. Fisher said that young women should learn how to manage persistent boyfriends' unwanted advances, and also, how to say yes. Good sex ed also teaches women that they can consent to or refuse birth control methods, said Fisher. As men and women age, they are more likely to use female methods -- pills, IUDs, diaphragms -- than male ones, like condoms. When they reach their late 20s, 44% of women and 45% men exclusively use female methods of birth control, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute. Fisher stresses that women telling partners what they want should not be limited to pleasure, but also when setting ground rules.
It's All About The Teacher
Remember Ski Slope Barbie, my sex education teacher? "As a teacher, you teach things your way and 90% of communication is nonverbal," said Fisher. Especially when it comes to instructing students on the basics (and later, finer points) of sex, the teacher's body language and confidence are incredibly important. My teacher was afraid and unsure, which suggested that sex was something to be afraid of and unsure about.
Sex is Fun!
At any point in your own sex education, did anyone mention that sex usually is, and should be, a good time -- and good for you? For many of us, the answer is no, and this is information young women deserve to have, said Fisher. There's a reason it evolved as a good experience," she said, before listing the many physiological benefits of sex: It reduces stress, boosts the immune system, is quality exercise and drives up dopamine (the pleasure chemical) in the brain. Informing young women of the physiological benefits of the sexual experience may alleviate some of the emotional, social and moral pressures and fear of the unknown. All of which can lead to a much more fulfilling, empowered sex life later on.