I believe it’s long past time for sex education in school to be reimagined, as opposed to a gradual evolution. Like mental health, it’s a topic that warrants attention, so please forgive this being a longer blog than usual. I worry that old fashioned attitudes will stymie proper attention to sex-ed. I know I’m not a doctor, psychologist, or an educator, but I’d like to share the research supporting the development of new sex-ed. I know I wish I’d had this program at school.
Season 3 of Netflix’s Sex Education will be released on September 17th and stars Gillian Anderson. As Agent Scully, Anderson influenced a generation of women to move into STEM professions (science, technology, engineering, and math). Learn more on The Scully Effect here Geena Davis Institute research. Now Gillian and a great cast are at it again in this fresh series aimed at helping teens learn about the complicated world of human sexual relations. The series writers are aligned with leading social psychologists; we need to reimagine sex education for future generations.
We should move away from the current abstinence/shame driven agenda which still underpins most schools’ sex-ed script. The average age for first marriages is now around 30 years old – 10 years later than the norm when I was in school – and yet very little has changed. The message sounds more Blockbuster than Netflix with each passing year; this is how we get pregnant, this is how we prevent pregnancy and disease, and bad things happen if we get this wrong. At least schools are now starting to teach consent, but I don’t think “Keep it in your pants,” from puberty to 30 is realistic even if some wish it were.
North America has close to the highest teen abortion, teen STI, sexual assault and divorce rates in the developed world. So, how can we be more effective at teaching good decisions around sex and sexual health?
Similar to tactics for reducing smoking, drinking, or wearing seatbelts, the solution lies in access to broader, fact-based, education. It should be delivered by people who are comfortable with and knowledgeable of the subjects both socially and academically. I don’t know what everyone else’s experience is, but my teachers were not comfortable with the topic. I don’t think Sexual Health Educator is a job people should giggle about behind the e-bike shed. It should be a job we are proud to see our kids take on, and students should see dedicated professionals as a valued member of faculty.
Firstly, schools should teach us how to do our own critical thinking and objective research – not just for sex-ed but for all topics – in a way that is decoupled from any one generation’s social and moral standards. Why? Because our grandparent’s binary moral filters prevent us from absorbing what we need. We feel shame when don’t meet our (their) moral standards or feel guilt if we breach social standards. Shame can motivate us to behave better, but persistent or overwhelming shame correlates clinically to aggression, addiction, depression, suicide, bullying, eating, and sexual disorders. Guilt relates to bad acts we performed whereas shame is about us being a bad person. Both inhibit the understanding of complex and sensitive topics which are fundamental to our health.
Secondly, let’s reprioritise what we try to pack into K-18, when sex education can be mandated. I understand the reluctance to talk to kids about sex. They are all too ready to try it so it’s tempting to say don’t teach it until they are old enough to use it. But we know they want to use it much earlier than we think they should, so we teach it way too late. I do not agree that teaching kids about sex will lead them to having sex earlier. No one was trying to make me a child engineer when they taught me Pythagoras. If we have no problem equipping people for later in life when it comes to engineering or math, it’s faulty thinking to leave a void of knowledge about sex in the hope kids won’t do what comes so naturally when their hormones are blazing. I never used calculus once in my successful 40-year career, so I think we can make room for things we will need to use. I know Shakespeare, Geography, History and how to make hydrogen in a test tube are important too, but if we took just three percent of the time allocated to each, there is plenty of time to equip youth for the emotions, communications skills, hormones, and difficult moments they will face from puberty onwards.
Consent is the foundation of my reimagined syllabus. The syllabus is morally and politically sensitive, yes, but not academically hard. We can borrow from countries like the Netherlands, who have an extensive syllabus on consent, and much lower sexual victimisation statistics. But we need to get out of our own puritanical way. Justin Lehmiller has a great article with details here. It starts by citing a United Nations report on vital statistics in 50 countries which concludes that the US has the 9th highest teen pregnancy rate, the Netherlands the 4th lowest, and gives insight into why.
Their syllabus extends well beyond our limited “No means No!” Respecting the No is the essential point, of course, but it’s like giving car keys to someone who has only been taught the brake. What about braking smoothly, or keeping the car straight in an emergency when you stamp on the brake? Driving and maintaining a car is a complex package and it’s the same with consent. They do a good job of changing the game entirely by attacking our programming that women should be the gatekeepers around sex and men are destined to pursue it. They give practical advice on real life scenarios such as how to react when one person wants to use a condom, and the other doesn’t, or someone wants a lot more or different sex than their partner. They teach communication skills to negotiate a position of agreement instead of a position of embarrassed resentment.
We need to rebrand consent to make it sexy. There is nothing hotter than someone enthusiastically saying they want you. Settling for awkward hinting and body-language loops back to shame.
Along with consent for all ages, the birds and bees and disease avoidance principles are in my base syllabus but rebranded to be positive and non-judgemental. The base package should also include gender and sexual identity terminology (that genie has left the bottle and it ain’t going back in). There should be tools to evaluate where we each really fit into this spectrum that take the novelty factor and guesswork away.
Let’s be honest, up until recently all psychology research was based on studying straight white men, and everyone else has been considered a slightly broken version of ‘him.’ Most treatments try to get you back to that norm. We need new emotional and psychological baselines for women and the growing LGBT+ spectrum so our treatments and guidance align to what they need, not what would help a straight white male. The LGBTQ+ community may only make up less than 1% of Canada, USA, and Australian population, but remember, indigenous and First Nations peoples are only 2 to 3.3%; it’s not about gross numbers. We have to do better at not marginalizing minority groups whose very identity is on the line.
Stress impacts both our sexual and general health and receives close to zero attention in K-18. How stress and similar factors affect desire, arousal, and other aspects of our sexual health are addressed in well researched models such as the dual control model. I’ve read Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are and Burnout and heard her lively podcasts and it’s clear that fact-based, non-judgemental, AND engaging information is readily available. We just have to teach it and keep it fun.
Perhaps one of the most contentious elements is how much information and guidance youth should get without the knowledge of their parents. A parent’s job is helping their underaged child to navigate the most difficult issues such as wondering if they are pregnant, transexual, LGBTQ+ etc., and for many the outcome is wonderful. But in other cases, the outcome is damaging and has resulted in child suicide. I believe information and support should be provided without parental knowledge, but I’m less clear what the right approach is when its time to act on that knowledge. What I am sure of is that we need to get this right in our reimagined system.
I also think there should be greater attention to the porn industry in sex ed. Topics like porn addiction, ethical porn, and the artificiality of most porn need to be discussed so that young people can make informed decisions on the explicit content they consume. Chances are that by middle school, most children have seen porn, possibly a lot of it, and will take it for face value if they are not educated early.
Then there should be a series of primers on a range of topics we will need later in life that would let people know that the information is out there if they ever need it. As an example, in a recent survey of 195 students on the relationship secrets men and women keep from each other, the number one secret women keep from men is being sexually victimized. There is growing evidence of what strategies have been successfully employed by victimized women to re-establish much of what was taken from them. Some of these strategies revolve around specific communication techniques. The school primer could include:
These types of primers myth-bust fallacies that become embedded in our thinking and so make things difficult later. This discourages us from seeking the resources to get the right help at the right time. Erectile disfunction is an example. Men have a 50% chance of experiencing ‘the droops’ in later years, and often have bouts of it earlier. Are they prepared? A phrase like “I bet he can’t keep it up,” highlights how deep in our psyche such fears sink in. We could nip this in the bud. Knowing the seven or eight likely causes of erectile dysfunction and the treatments available is essential for men and their partners.
In the same vein the term “sexual debut” is taking over from virginity as we acknowledge the latter reinforces the outdated patriarchy model of society, and (sadly I think) is even being stigmatized in some cultures. A recent study of 500 heterosexuals in the US reported how those who had not yet had their debut felt this stigma, and another study of 5000 people in the US concluded both men and women said they would be unlikely to enter a relationship with virgin. Why are we teaching a model which is ultimately shame based and damaging, especially if there is no proof it reduces unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease?
I think we need to finally accept what has been true forever, even if some try to say it is otherwise: The primary reason humans have sex isn’t for procreation. As Cindy Meston points out in her study 237 Reasons People Have Sex, the drivers of pleasure, keeping your partner focussed and loyal, and sense of duty rank much higher. Studies have repeatedly shown that:
If all of the above seems complicated and embarrassing to you, consider if you would feel like that if we were taught properly when we were young. Although it is a large field of study, we are learning that we can be more balanced, fulfilled, and safe if we invest the time to understand ourselves rather than hide from the very things which make us human. And it’s easier and more useful than calculus.
I would love to hear what you think of these concepts and other suggestions for sex education. Please feel free to use the comment section.