When I was in seventh grade, I kept a folded piece of paper hidden in my desk drawer. On it, I listed my most pressing “everyday” fears. None were apocalyptic, but as an anxious 12-year-old, they felt insurmountable. Among them was the following question: “How will I ever give a blow job?”
Several girls I knew were giving blow jobs at age 12 and 13. Whether or not they wanted to is another question, but it was happening, and I was terrified. And so seventh grade marked the beginning of a long period of sexual anxiety — the year most of my friends started making out at parties (and, in some cases, giving/getting blow jobs), and the year of middle school sex ed.
I feel lucky that I got to take sex ed at age 12. Given that only 24 states in the United States require sex education, it’s obvious that sex ed isn’t treated with the same weight as subjects like math or history. According to the most recent data, 37 states simply require abstinence to be taught. In other words, the majority of states in the U.S. acknowledge the role of sex in school curricula by simply choosing not to go there. Only nine states require any kind of discussion about sexual orientation within school walls.
As progressive as my school was, our sex ed program wasn’t. In seventh grade, we mostly learned basic definitions, exclusively in the context of heterosexual intercourse. Sex was defined, first and foremost, as a means of reproduction — not something most people, regardless of gender, did for pleasure. Practically speaking, sex was also defined as the insertion of an erect penis into a vagina. Because reproduction was the framework we were given, the most “essential” part of sex was male ejaculation. Interesting, huh?
The more progressive part of our curriculum involved tips — standard “dos and don’ts.” Do use condoms. Don’t have unprotected sex. Do seek help if a friend drinks alcohol. Don’t drink alcohol and have sex. My most vivid memories from class are of looking at cautionary photos of inflamed genitals (gonorrhoea), watching a film entitled Am I Normal? (1979) in which a boy has his first wet dream (the conclusion: He’s normal!), and being told that pot was a gateway drug.
Even after we were made to take another instalment of sex ed in 10th grade, there were never any group discussions about sex-related issues such as sexual orientation, body image, or consent. If it didn’t have to do with infection or imminent threats to physical safety (read: sexually transmitted diseases and/or pregnancy), it wasn’t really part of the program.
As for my personal relationship to sex in high school, it basically didn’t exist. Of course, I can’t say that my pretty standardly terrible sex ed experience caused the terror I felt about sex during high school, but I can say that it didn’t give me any tools to work with my difficult emotions. Nor did it give any kind of framework for dealing with practical situations and feelings that arose in the awful world that is high school social life: hearing about your friends having sex for the first time, people grinding at parties where there’s alcohol, someone kissing you in a forcible way. These aren’t situations teeming with chlamydia bacteria, but they are situations in which real feelings of danger can, and did, exist.
I navigated my non-existent sex life in high school by avoiding intimacy like the plague. My high school years were punctuated by a handful of make-outs, and only one time did I get close to anything “sexual” — a boy whom I had a major crush on tried to finger me under the table while we were at a dinner party at my best friend’s house. Any attempt I made at talking about sex-related stuff with close friends or my therapist made me feel humiliated, so I stopped myself each time.
College was a different story. I was in a new environment where I could rewrite my sexual narrative from scratch. I no longer had to be self-loathing about my body, ashamed of desire, and contemptuous of vulnerability. After I “lost my virginity” (R.I.P.) to a visiting friend from high school early on my freshman year in college, I felt empowered. It was pleasurable in the sense that I felt close to him, and knew that we respected each other. Of course, there was no real foreplay or attention given to me, and I certainly didn’t have an orgasm. But I affirmatively told him that I wanted to have sex, and he was attentive in making sure that consent was mutual. Since I’d never heard much about consent, I perceived my friend’s basic respect for my body to be “sweet.”
Yet I wasn’t prepared for the emotional hurdles that ensued. Two days later, I had a raging urinary tract infection (UTI), and the physical pain kicked me into acknowledging some of the tough emotions I had ignored during the sex itself — feeling like I was invisible, and that my body was being used. As my anger bubbled to the surface, I began to replay the situation in my head. My body felt trapped. I was the one being penetrated and sullied with bacteria, while he just got to fuck me, have an orgasm, and leave town the next day.
While I recognise that blame isn’t totally fair, this story is a good example of how unprepared I was (and I imagine most people are) for the emotional ramifications of even fairly standard (heterosexual) sex. Sure, there was consent, and the guy wasn’t malicious, yet there was a lot of emotional (and physical) pain involved, some of which I wasn’t even aware of at the time: My pleasure was ignored and I had NO IDEA it should even matter — to me, him, or anyone. Sex gave me an excruciating infection, and I added insult to injury by convincing myself that telling the guy about it would be unnecessary and gross. As a friend of mine said to me, “Men are taught how to receive sexual pleasure, and women are taught how to give it.”
Sometimes, the line between emotional danger and physical danger is a bit blurred, and STIs and pregnancy aren’t the only urgent safety issues to think about. When I was in Mexico for a summer internship after my sophomore year of college, I woke up after a drunken date with a guy I liked and discovered that he was having sex with me while I was asleep. We had slept together earlier that night (after many, many drinks), and I liked him a lot. So when I saw him having sex with me during my sleep, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t exactly feel endangered, which itself scares me, looking back at it. Above all, I remember feeling too uncomfortable to say “stop.” I didn’t want to ruffle feathers. The only other thing I remember is silently checking to see if he was wearing a condom. He was, and I blocked out the rest, or perhaps fell back asleep.
I didn’t allow myself to remember this experience until about two years ago. The memory came to me unexpectedly during a conversation with an ex-boyfriend, and I felt instantly ashamed of my inability to acknowledge, unabashedly, that what happened was not okay. No part of me felt prepared to call out the situation as “rape.” I didn’t want to identify myself as a survivor. And despite all the thinking, reading, and writing I continue to do about sex and relationships, meditation and feminism, I’m still not sure how to relate to this experience exactly. This is the kind of stuff we need to talk about in sex ed.
I don’t blame sex ed for my trauma. But I do sit here imagining how powerful it would have been to have an educational forum in which to talk about grittier emotional challenges related to sex. How to tell a partner what you want in bed. How to express anger and resentment in a calm and compassionate way. How to voice feeling hurt or scared, from a place of authenticity and empowerment. How to accept yourself after feeling like you didn’t say or do what you could’ve done. How to wrap your head around being raped by someone who seems to treat you nicely.
Sometimes the line between emotional danger and physical danger is a bit blurred.
For most of college, before and after Mexico, I felt embarrassed that my staunch commitment to feminism didn’t always come with me to the bedroom. I would go home with guys after parties and sometimes sleep with them, and basically always felt like it was my job to give them an orgasm. With the exception of a few functional relationships in college, I never really brought my sexual needs to the proverbial table. Today, at 25, I am in a committed relationship, and I am working on it.
Here’s the thing about sex: It’s never black-and-white; emotions never are. That’s why it needs to be taught accordingly.
This is not to say that sex ed shouldn’t still teach safe sex, disease prevention, and birth control. But there’s more work to do — work that would enrich the meaning of the word “safe” when it came to safe sex, and that would acknowledge the importance of pleasure.
We need sex ed to address, explicitly, that having a healthy sex life is “normal.” We need to talk about pleasure, and particularly women’s pleasure. We need to talk about sexism and gender stereotypes, and how they contribute to an array of uncomfortable emotions for everyone when it comes to getting naked. We need to address rape culture, what consent really means, and give students tools to assert their boundaries. We need to talk about the prevalence of domestic violence, and present a more nuanced picture of what “abuse” can look like. We cannot continue to portray sex as merely physically dangerous. Because more often than not, the dangers of sex are not exclusively physical.