The Wednesday Weigh-In: How can we give young people better sex education?

This morning the Guardian hosted a kick-ass live panel discussion with technical experts, advocates, teachers, writers, and more (see details below) to talk about one thing: how can we give young people better sex education?

This is a topic that comes up all the time on the blog because it is SO connected to, well, everything we write about. Reproductive health, fighting sexual assault, building consent culture, battling gender essentialism and more can all be traced to one thing: comprehensive, age appropriate, positively framed sexuality education!  That’s why we spend so much time shouting from the rooftops about sex ed:  defining what good sex education actually looks like and how to transform current programs into even more useful and sex positive versions of themselves so we can then make infographics about them and demand them for a stronger future and praise decisions to bring them to schools.

The Guardian conversation used an excellent article by Doortje Braeken, senior adviser on adolescents and young people at the International Planned Parenthood Federation, as a starting off point. “To work in sexual and reproductive health and rights is to be drip-fed a diet of warnings, doom-laden data on violence, population and epidemics; no wonder we have forgotten a central truth about sex – namely that it is pleasurable,” she writes. She joined the following people in a truly important dialogue about how we can revitalize a movement for a truly comprehensive approach.

Chelsea Ricker is a youth officer at IPPF
Jane Lees is chair of the Sex Education Forum
Alice Hoyle is an experienced SRE professional and member of PSHE Association’s advisory council
Tom Sherrington is headteacher at King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford
Emma Rubach is head of editorial at YouthNet
Anne Philpott is the founder of the Pleasure Project
Alice Sholl is a student at the University of Liverpool and writes about sex education
Jennifer Hill is an education and training professional for Brook East Of England

I’d like to extend the conversation and keep it going here for today’s Wednesday weigh-in:

What were some of the first messages and lessons you received about sex? How do you wish they were different? What can we do know to bring the next generation of young people a better, more comprehensive sexuality education?

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • Brittany

    All of the messages I received about sex as a child (and frankly, now as well) were that it was only for conventionally attractive people with normative bodies. We’re conditioned to express disgust at the idea not just of our relatives but of older people or fat people or “ugly” people having sex, which only causes people to feel more shame about their bodies and more anxiety about sex. I think it would be really positive if sex education (and our culture in general) were more inclusive of different types of bodies.

  • Alisha Walker

    Primarily, I think we need to let young people know that there are resources for knowledge, and that it’s ok to talk about sex openly. I have a nephew who graduated high school 2 years ago and is currently in college. A few weeks ago, I had a very surprising conversation with him and his girlfriend (she’s about to finish her first year of nursing school). I think he probably learned most of what he knows about sex from friends, which shows he had an interest in the subject and wanted facts but had no reliable source to get them. Here are some of the misconceptions we covered in one conversation.
    STI’s – He believed that lesbians can’t get STI’s, but was convinced that most gay men have one (welcome to the South). His girlfriend had been immunized for HPV, but he didn’t know that he could get the vaccine as well or that the vaccine doesn’t protect from all strains. He wasn’t aware that you can contract some STI’s while using a condom. He didn’t know that pregnancy tests and STI screenings were free at his campus health center.
    Birth Control and Pregnancy – He thought a woman couldn’t get pregnant even if she’d just started on the pill (his girlfriend thought the same thing). He couldn’t name any birth control options besides male condoms and the pill. He had no idea that the pill can treat medical conditions (surprising, since his mom has PCOS). He believed that abortion can cause breast cancer and sterility. He has an ex-girlfriend with a latex allergy with whom he was active, and didn’t know about polyurethane condoms.
    General stuff – He wasn’t aware that drinking can cause performance issues. He’d never heard the term “Active Consent” and had never been introduced to the idea that both parties should seek an “active yes” every time. He doesn’t know any men (public figures or men in his own life) who have been raped or sexually assaulted and knew only one woman who openly discussed her rape, so he was very surprised to hear how frequent it happens to both men and women. He thought female orgasms lasted “about 5 seconds” (that poor girl he’s dating!). He was convinced that old people don’t have sex. (His awesome grandma set him straight)
    IMO, this is unacceptable. Society is just going to have to start supplementing what they teach in school, because it’s obviously lacking. If young people continue to believe that they can’t talk about it, they will continue to be ignorant. We need a place where kids all over the country can go to get accurate information without interference from politicians or religious groups, and we need to do a massive marketing campaign to let kids know about it.

  • andrea

    When I was just entering middle school, I had a fabulous sex-ed class – I think it was awesome because the teacher was fearless.

    The class wasn’t sex-ed, though. It was called ‘personal development and relationships’, and dealt with a lot more than sex. We talked about body image, drugs & drug abuse, home violence, sexual assault and consent, partner violence, sexuality [as separate from sex; homo-bi-hetero-pan-etc sexuality], and media awareness. Bullying, pregnancy, STD’s, and birth control were also part of the program.

    The course was meant to be taught over the three years of middle school, grades 7, 8, and 9, for two hours each week. Students were required to attend – meaning that parents could not pull their children from the class.

    Personally, I’d like to see more of this in schools: full, comprehensive development education that includes sex but is not necessarily sex-focused. A course that gives students the language to discuss what they are experiencing, the knowledge of what it means, and the confidence to talk about their lives, thoughts, and feelings openly with their peers or the adults in their lives.

    • Steve

      So you are okay with mandated classes with such subjects? Class where parents can not opt-out for personal or that religious reasons?

  • Lindsay

    My parents were actually really open to talking about sex, but I didn’t really want to interact with them about it.

    I took sex ed at the Unitarian Universalist Church, and it was wonderful. We learned all the practical things, like how to put a condom on safely, methods of birth control, etc. But what was most important to me is that we spent a lot of time talking about how to deal with people and sex. We worked through how to deal if someone was pressuring us for sex, how to talk about relationships, and what words we felt comfortable using. I think that it was extremely successful at teaching me to navigate my sexuality, and I’m really glad my mother forced me to go.

  • Myana Conrad

    Surprisingly I was at a French catholic school until grade 8 and got the whooooole anatomy lesson once a week for a whole semester, every semester, for two years. We were in grades 7 and 8, so there wasn’t a whole lot of sex talk, but by the time I moved on to public English high school (grade 9-12) we got the whole enchilada….. Our sex Ed teacher was a straight up northern woman with no shame. (Also the gym teacher which is typical lol) We learnt about tampons, discharge, stds…she used to have us ask embarrassing questions on paper sans name and answer them in class, which was very cool- I remember being really relieved I was normal. We watched a video once of sex as seen by the vagina cam…..whoa! graphic! lol……We weren’t even segregated! We were more embarrassed then anything else….. But to this day I will always be ignorant to the poor education in bodies and sex Ed that others have received…. We all got way more then we bargained for! Yup, that’s a penis… a vagina…..thrusting…..and ejaculating…..whoa…..