Humanist EDge: We Need to Talk About Sex Education

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

If we didn’t teach children the alphabet, how would they learn how to spell? If we gave students incorrect information in math class, how could we expect them to manage their money (or most other aspects of life)? How can we prepare children to become responsible and fully functioning adults if we don’t educate them?

This is especially true in regards to sex education. Fewer American students receive comprehensive sexual education now than at any time in the past twenty years, because only about half of all school districts require any sexual education at all. The Guttmacher Institute recently reported that, as of March 1, 2019, only thirteen states require medically accurate sex education. Eighteen states require students be taught that sex is only acceptable within the context of marriage. Fewer than ten states require curriculum to be culturally appropriate, unbiased, and secular. In a hard-hitting New York Times op-ed, “How to Make Sex More Dangerous,” Andrea Barrica (founder of the sex-ed media platform wrote that:

Seven states prohibit teachers—under penalty of law—from acknowledging the existence of L.G.B.T.Q. people other than in the context of H.I.V. or to condemn homosexuality. Only 10 states even reference “sexual assault” or “consent” in their sex education curriculums…States that place a heavy emphasis on abstinence-only sex ed have seen much higher rates of teen pregnancy…[A]nd the number of S.T.I.s has been at all-time highs…[O]nly 41 percent of American women have described their first sexual experience as wanted.

Although the #MeToo movement inspired large-scale consent education, some attempts have been rejected. Many male politicians are proposing dangerous reproductive legislation because they don’t understand how women’s bodies work. The Trump administration’s budgets designate more funding for proven-ineffective abstinence-only programs. Stressing that teens should wait until marriage to have sex doesn’t help them build healthy, respectful love lives during marriage. Emphasizing only the dangers of sex brings shame about one’s body and interactions with others. In the United States, the fear of children having sexual intercourse has restricted students’ opportunity to learn about every component of sexual activity:

  • Making decisions about our bodies,
  • Sharing those decisions with others (or acting on them ourselves),
  • Comprehending and accepting the decisions others make for their bodies,
  • Knowing what materials to use and how to use them safely, and
  • Managing what happens after.

In the Netherlands, however, sexual education has gotten more comprehensive in the classroom and public museums as Dutch parents, healthcare workers, and educators openly communicate about bodies and relationships with children of all ages. While researching her book, Beyond Birds & Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids about Sex, Love, and Equality, Bonnie J. Rough found that the Netherlands outperforms most countries on various global metrics for sexual-health outcomes, including low rates of teen pregnancy and high rates of sexual satisfaction. (It’s also one of the most gender-equal countries in the world.) Beginning in primary school, Dutch students learn about health, tolerance, and assertiveness. “The core objectives are to prevent sexual coercion, crossed boundaries, and homophobic behavior, as well as to promote inclusion” Says Rough.

The Dutch sexual education philosophy resembles that of the Unitarian Universalists’ Our Whole Lives (OWL) program, which provides age-appropriate curriculum for kindergarten through to adulthood in secular and religious settings. OWL recognizes that we are all lifelong learners and “respects the diversity of participants with respect to biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, and disability status.” Similarly, Planned Parenthood’s Get Real program caters to middle school and high school students with resources for the classroom and family discussions.

These national efforts aren’t out there on their own. To spread healthy sexual education in Appalachian Kentucky and surrounding rural communities, Tanya Turner designed a Sexy Sex Ed workshop that focuses on consent, safety, and anatomy. “When a kid starts talking, and they touch their ear, we give them language for ‘ear.’…[B]ut when they touch their vagina, we’re like, ‘Don’t touch yourself there.’ And we don’t even call it vagina. We don’t even give language—the bare minimum—that someone needs to advocate for themselves and about what’s going on in their world.”

As part of the Sex Ed for Grownups series, HuffPost shares several important lessons that holistic LGBTQ-inclusive sexual education could provide, and details why “No Promo Homo” laws—meant to exclude lessons that might promote homosexuality—are damaging. For example, teaching all children that periods are natural will reduce the fear and shame of dealing with them. Teaching that sex comes in different forms helps students avoid being pressured into uncomfortable activities and protects them from abuse. “When we teach the diverse ways bodies can interact pleasurably, it allows each person to decide what they feel comfortable with, instead of feeling limited or obligated to have intercourse,” said Galia Godel, a Philadelphia-based sexuality educator. Informing students that sexual orientation and identity exist on a spectrum and can be fluid throughout their lives allows exploration outside of forced societal norms.

Websites and apps are providing comprehensive curriculum, even if schools won’t. Andrea Barrica’s is a free non-judgmental online resource for sexuality and dating. “Pleasure Professionals”—including gynecologists, dating coaches, sex educators and therapists— give tutorials and develop content meant to answer common questions. Barrica was raised in a conservative Catholic Filipino family, experiencing abstinence-only education at home and fear-based sex education in public school. She launched in 2017 to provide others with the reliable, scientifically accurate resources—free of online harassment—she wished she had growing up. In our phone conversation following her New York Times op-ed, Barrica said she identifies as queer and now considers herself to be “spiritual but not religious, maybe agnostic.” Her main goal is to help people unlearn sexual shame—often associated with religious teachings and bad sexual education—and build more sexual confidence and pleasure.

Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement, said: “We should teach our children nothing which they shall ever need to unlearn; we should strive to transmit to them the best possessions, the truest thought, the noblest sentiments of the age in which we live.” Comprehensive, inclusive, scientifically accurate sexual education is essential to the development of responsible, healthy, and happy adults. We should be empowering children to make their own choices about their bodies and their lives.