Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why we need better sex education

Every semester, I teach a course in the Psychology of Human Sexuality at Montgomery College. And every semester, I become more convinced that our system of sexuality education is dangerously inadequate. But wait, you say -- most public schools include sex education and there is so much sexual information readily available today, so surely students are well aware of the basics regarding sexuality.

Tell that to the young man who never had any sex education before my class. His parents opted him out of every aspect of sex education at school. That is their right, but they also failed to provide any significant discussion of issues surrounding sexuality at home, beyond the basic message of "don't have sex." He was so grateful for the opportunity to have access to real sexuality education in my class.

Tell that to the young woman who was sure there was something wrong with her because she couldn't have an orgasm through penile-vaginal intercourse. She spent years faking orgasms because she didn't feel comfortable talking to her partners about her inability to climax. For the first time, she is talking to her partner openly about how she responds sexually and exploring new possibilities for herself and her partner.

Tell that to the many students who were sexually assaulted, abused, or raped, but have never told anyone about it because they were sure it was their fault, or it wasn't "really" rape, or because they thought no one would believe them. They still suffer with feelings of fear, mistrust, anger, and doubt that can have a corrosive influence on their sexuality and intimate relationships. They tell me their stories, finally beginning to believe that what happened to them wasn't just "bad sex" and that they didn't deserve it.

Tell that to the students who have never learned effective relationship skills. The chapter on love and communication is revelatory -- they realize that they have routinely been using destructive communication tactics like stonewalling, criticism, and defensiveness, and suddenly the failure of their last relationship makes sense. Most report that they have never been taught communication skills in school, and few can identify even one couple in their lives who could act as a role model for a happy, successful relationship. They walk out of my class with concrete, scientifically-validated strategies for more satisfying and enduring relationships.

This doesn't even include the students who got misinformation about STDs through abstinence-only sex "education", who never learned about the full range of contraceptive methods available (or how to use them correctly), and who couldn't label basic sexual and reproductive anatomy accurately. We need to do a better job of educating young people about sexuality. We are leaving them dangerously ignorant and misinformed, without the knowledge and skills they need to make safe, satisfying sexual choices.

I'm cautiously optimistic about the future, though. President Obama has cut funding for abstinence-only sex "education" (or what one of my friends calls "ignorance-only" sex education), and the new appropriations bill focuses on funding effective sexuality education. In other words, there is a pool of money available to fund programs that have been "proven through rigorous evaluation to delay sexual activity, increase contraceptive use (without increasing sexual activity), reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted infections or reduce teenage pregnancy" [from the 2010 appropriations bill via Newsweek's blog, The Gaggle]. I am pleased to see an approach that cares about the empirical evidence of efficacy in sexuality education. This means that we will be shifting toward more comprehensive sexuality education, which is effective at reducing rates of teen pregnancy, and away from abstinence-only sex education, which has been receiving federal funds since 1981, despite its failure to reduce adolescent pregnancy or delay sexual activity.

But sexuality education needs to be more than just pregnancy and STI prevention. We need to provide the tools to develop sexual lives that are both safe and satisfying. Certainly, we need to provide effective, age-appropriate sexuality education about issues related to reproduction and health. But young people also need to know how to enhance pleasure and build strong relationships. They need education that builds sexual agency and effective communication skills -- not only will that help reduce unwanted pregnancy and the transmission of STIs, but it would also be an important step in our progress toward greater gender equality. Until those lessons are part of every adolescent's education, I'll continue to hear the stories that are proof of the inadequacy of our current system of sex education. And I'll continue to do my best to provide the kind of sexuality education I think every person needs and deserves.


  1. I am intrigued by your post and I couldn't agree with you more. Sex education should be taught not only to protect the youth of today but for the future of all mankind.

  2. In my course on social emotions, I often include a unit on communication skills and encounter the same first-time self-recognition to destructive communication patterns. I share your reaction that, hey, this stuff can be taught and no one's doing it! I use basic self-help CBT manuals, but am glad to learn that sexuality texts include communication as part of the package!

  3. Thanks for the supportive comment, Jenna! I absolutely agree that sexuality education is an investment in our future. Comprehensive sexuality education doesn't just benefit young people today -- it benefits all of us.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I'm so glad you teach communication skills in your social emotions course, Sentiment_Al. I honestly think these should be included in the K-12 curriculum and would produce measurable improvement in relationships of all kinds. I use John Gottman's research as my core, to talk about how to manage conflict effectively and what patterns to avoid. His book, _The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work_ is a very readable discussion of his research, and you can find some good summaries on the web, as well. I never thought to use the CBT manuals -- I'll have to look at those to see if I can add anything to my discussion. I also like to give the students a chance to practice the communication patterns in class and talk about alternatives for the destructive patterns (like stonewalling). Most of my students are very engaged in this topic and report that this is the most helpful part of the course for them.

    Thanks for stopping by!