Sex ed sucks. It often disregards the natural curiosity we’ve all had, from childhood, toward our bodies. It’s taught by teachers we don’t trust — or who our parents and politicians don’t trust — to speak frankly on the nuances of sex, puberty, gender, and relationships. And, worst of all, sex ed in schools is one-size-fits-all: curriculums are obsessed with heteronormative gender roles and penis-in-vagina sex. Because of all of this, a lot of us learn about sex and sexuality through alternate means: older kids, porn, and the internet. That can be really helpful, but it can also be very misleading. As political cultures in western countries push back on the last couple of decades of progress, sex ed is becoming a battleground. Why can’t we figure out how to talk to young people about sex? What do we need to know the most? The FADER talked with 12 people, of all ages, from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., about what sex ed looks like now, and how to make it better.
What don’t young people understand about sex?
DARION HARRIS (student, 17): Sex ed at my school is actually scary. We just learn about diseases: they’ll show pictures, and you’re grossed out. They’re just trying to tell kids not to have sex.
DILLON BELL (teacher, 41): They don’t understand the physical and emotional consequences of their decisions. I know a lot of kids might think, You don’t have to have sex, you can just do oral sex, and it’s as if they still haven’t crossed a line.
LEAH WEISGAL (educator at Planned Parenthood Utah, 20): Queer sex — I’m gay and have been out for years, but that was a real information gap. I felt comfortable talking about heterosexual intercourse, condoms, HIV/AIDS, and STIs, but I had no idea about the kinds of protection queer couples can use.
EMILY YATES (disability advocate/educator, 25): From a young age I was told that you were only supposed to have sex with somebody you were in love with. As you get older and become more confident sexually, that’s not always the case — some people in love don’t even have sex with each other.
SAMEERA QURESHI (educator at HEART Women and Girls, a Muslim-led sexual health organization, 34): Girls really don’t understand menstruation at all. I think that’s common beyond the Muslim community. The school curriculum doesn’t afford time for the why, self-care, hygiene, and other questions.
What should sex ed actually be like?
YATES: Sex ed should be fully inclusive. We need to understand disabled people have exactly the same needs, desires, and wants as everyone else. When [disabled] young people go into sex ed lessons they’re often given materials and resources they cannot physically access. As a wheelchair user myself, I remember watching videos during sex ed and none of the bodies related to what my body is like and can do. For young people that are in [hospitals or assisted living], or have support because of their disability, sex and relationships never comes up on care plans. I think that’s really disgusting. Teen boys are often called aggressive and angry by carers when they’re probably really sexually frustrated, but have no one to talk to.
HARRIS: Since I go to an all-boys school, it would be good to join with an all-girls school and learn how to put on a condom. We’d still talk about what happens if you have unprotected sex — when to know if you have to get tested — but focusing more on how to have safe sex.
“As early as possible, it’s vital to have conversations with kids about what bodies are capable of, should and shouldn’t be used for, and that not all are the same.”—Talya Sokoll, teacher and librarian
QURESHI: The organization where I work focuses within conservative Muslim communities and takes a developmental and values-based approach. Most sex ed is taught devoid of values, and how beliefs might be helpful when making tricky decisions about bodies and relationships. It’s not that we’re imparting religious ruling — most Muslim children, youth, and adults know what their religion states — but a critical thinking lens instead.
WEISGAL: There are so many laws in the U.S. that restrict what words can be used, what demonstrations can be done, and whether we can talk about different sexual orientations. Under Utah’s Administrative Code, you cannot advocate for homosexuality or the use of contraceptive methods or devices. That’s the basic education I’m fighting for: the right to use proper language, tell people about their bodies and rights over their bodies, and how to get resources.
CYNTHIA LAM (student and former contributor to SexEtc.org, 23): In kindergarten you learn about your body parts: head, shoulders, knees, and toes. [But] we should learn about all body parts.
When should sex ed start?
TALYA SOKOLL (teacher and librarian, 31): As early as possible. It’s vital to have conversations with kids about what bodies are capable of, should and shouldn’t be used for, and that not all are the same. Using language like: “Some of our bodies have vaginas and some have penises, most of our bodies have butts, these are their functions. Some have vaginas, most of those identify as female, but not all of them, etc.”
DAVID UDAYASEKARAN (Planned Parenthood Toronto, 37): When young children can talk about their body parts, that also increases the ability for sexual predators to be prosecuted, because people listen when kids use proper language.
QURESHI: Many people would say sex ed [should] start at puberty, or when kids are thinking about becoming sexually active, but we know that when conversations start at that age they’re not always productive. I think it’s the parents responsibility to teach [young] kids that information. [Normalizing these conversations] versus having isolated sit-downs also builds a relationship between parents and children.
How do you teach consent?
ZADIE LABORDE (student, 16): Consent is definitely on the minds of a lot of boys and girls my age, but it’s everyone’s individual interpretation. Boys are kind of hyperaware, like, “Oh, can I touch you? You need to send me a text or a note that this is OK,” or “If you don’t like it you can say no.” The major issue is that boys wait for the “no” rather than getting the “yes” and those can be two different things.
QURESHI: I hear a lot of kids saying consent is assumed when you’re in a relationship, that it’s like an automatic “yes” to everything. Or girls feel like if they don’t consent then their relationship will fall apart. Some colleagues of mine teach consent from a pleasure-based perspective versus a sexual violence/harm perspective — so if anything you do or ask your partner to do is not pleasurable, then that’s not consent. I’ve heard kids are a bit more receptive to that approach.
YATES: Deaf and disabled women are nearly three times more likely than able-bodied women to get sexually abused. The problem goes back to accessibility of resources. Consent is not always understood by deaf and disabled people, especially if sex education isn’t inclusive. And society teaches us that disability isn’t [desirable] so in order to get sex you’re going to have to do something different than your peers. It’s really dangerous.
How should sex ed address gender identity?
SOKOLL: Teachers need to define the terms and talk about the difference between gender and sexuality. Little kids seem to understand that innately, and teens react well. Having these labels gives kids the opportunity to talk about who they are without having to use inaccurate words.
LAM: Starting in kindergarten, [teachers should] talk about differences and similarities in how boys and girls may be expected to act, recognizing that it’s an expectation, and not necessarily what is or should be the norm.
“Communities have the resources and resilience within to do sex ed. When other people try to dictate that it becomes very colonial in nature.”—Sameera Qureshi, educator at HEART Women and Girls
WEISGAL: Sex is about biological characteristics. It’s not even a binary. You can be careful about language and teach in a framework that doesn’t make students feel alienated from the start. We need to create an environment where students who are gender nonconforming feel they can ask questions, and are given information applicable to them. The absence of information is not education — it’s that simple.
UDAYASEKARAN: Sex ed can include gender identity, but I also think it should be taught outside of sex ed. Parents of kids in Ontario schools can opt out of sex ed but within the Toronto public school board, specifically, there’s an equity education policy [that shapes the curriculum]. All students can learn about sexual orientation and gender identity within the context of how people are different, being more respectful toward your peers, etc. — and you can’t opt out of that equity policy. It should be common practice to talk about gender identity and sexual orientation because it’s not just about sex; it’s about how you identify and are treated within classrooms and society.
How is technology shaping the way we learn about sex?
KAELIN FARNISH (student, 17): So many people I know are on Tinder or Grindr talking to people, meeting up, having sex. Students should definitely be taught ways to keep safe when meeting with someone, and during online relationships.
LEO BEATTIE (teacher, 39): The newspapers and government go on about pedophiles, but internet safety for my students involves talking about sexting, nude photos, and bullying or shaming. We talk about the fact that as soon as you take a photo with your phone, people can get their hands on it. Or if you send it to someone you’ve lost complete control over it. We do a lot of stuff around the law as well: if I send a photo of my girlfriend, boyfriend, or myself, naked, and I’m 15, or the person in the photo is 15, I’m actually distributing child pornography under U.K. law.
QURESHI: A lot of kids have these second or third identities where they’re a different person online because they’re deemed to be anonymous. They don’t understand the consequences, so it’s important to teach them about the law, child pornography, sexting — that things are traceable, and police and employers can pull up your record in the future.
LABORDE: We should teach kids that pornography isn’t a realistic thing, or something one should aspire to when having sex. I’ve also heard stories of my friends or people at school who have gotten photos leaked, so it’s important to know the damage that one click can have on a person — and an entire body of students.
How should abortion be taught?
WEISGAL: One in three women in her lifetime will get an abortion, regardless of the laws. The fact that it’s a really personal decision is true, but it would be beneficial to talk about abortion the way we talk about other procedures. Our laws value bodily autonomy so much that if someone’s dying and your blood is the only blood that can save them, we do not require that you give a donation. To tell women that you need to sacrifice your life [for a fetus], whatever the situation may be — that’s not valuing women.
FARNISH: In my [Scottish public] school, abortion was covered in Religious and Moral Education as a “moral issue.” There were lots of people who were very strongly against abortion, and speaking out on their views. That can be quite intimidating for someone going through a situation relating to abortion.
“The textbooks we use are 15 years old. We need to understand sex through the modern gaze.”—Zadie Laborde, student
HARRIS: I understand abortion and think no one should have a say about another person’s body, but at an all-boys school they don’t really talk about it.
QURESHI: A lot of kids don’t understand abortion, they think it’s a willy-nilly decision. We define it, talk about the many reasons women decide to have abortions, and the different laws around it. I do [tell them] that in Islam many scholars say abortion within three months under very rigorous conditions is permissible. It can be a dangerous thing for some young people to not know this, especially when you consider that some abortions happen for health reasons of both the mother and fetus, or are miscarriages that require a medical procedure to remove the fetus.
What scares you the most about the future of sex ed?
VANESSA L. GIBSON (N.Y.C. council member, 37): We don’t want young people denied services because they’re poor, don’t have a primary care doctor, or live in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a health center. In my own community of the Bronx, [my] colleagues and I have health fairs where we do free testing and screenings. We bring health organizations to churches, businesses, and schools. When you’re struggling to pay rent and put food on the table, sex education isn’t necessarily a top priority. We don’t expect them to come to us. We need to be preventative, not reactionary.
WEISGAL: Vice President Mike Pence: he’s a huge proponent of defunding Planned Parenthood, one of the largest providers of sexual education in the country.
QURESHI: It scares me that sex ed is trying to be uniform without including spiritual and faith or values-based perspectives. When non-Muslims tell Muslims what they should and shouldn’t be learning, you’re assuming that Muslims have different values when it comes to sex ed and they don’t. But communities have the resources and resilience within to do sex ed. When other people try to dictate that it becomes very colonial in nature and you’re going to shut down communities even further. I’m hoping there are people like me acting as cultural and religious brokers in terms of educating professionals outside of the faith traditions.
LABORDE: The textbooks we use are 15 years old. We need to understand sex through the modern gaze.
FARNISH: [I’m scared] that it’s going to stay the same. People are expressing sexuality a lot more, but sex education is still very much stuck in the past.
And what gives you hope?
UDAYASEKARAN: Youth are mobilizing. Consent is included in Ontario schools because there was a movement by students to make it a part of the curriculum.
QURESHI: The quality of sex educators and the positive outcomes when kids have safe spaces to talk about what they want to talk about and learn about.
LAM: A lot of decisions [about] sex ed [are] made on the state or local level, so parents and young people can really have a strong role and influence on what they’re taught in schools.
YATES: The online community, especially for people with disabilities. It fills me with so much happiness to think somebody younger than me has so much more information than I did.
WEISGAL: Millennials who vote comprehensively for anti-discriminatory laws are taking over the voting bloc, and they’ll vote against people trying to take us back in time.