Let’s Talk About Sex: Sex Education in America

When I was nine years old, my sister had a hilarious idea for an experiment to see how much I knew about sex. She sat me down at the computer and I stared blankly at one sentence typed into Notepad: “Sex is when the boy puts his ________ into the girl’s ________”. I mulled it over. This was a step further than her usual antics of asking me what I thought “making out” looked like and encouraging me to demonstrate on my arm. (Side note: My sister is a lovely human being and I don’t hold her accountable for tapping into my naive curiosity. Additional side note: I told my arm I just wanted to be friends.) I didn’t really know the terminology that well, but I was scared to disappoint. So I filled in the blanks as follows:

“Sex is when the boy puts his penis into the girl’s mouth or phachina. Probably mouth because I don’t think it would fit in the other one.”              

She read it, laughed, and explained two things to me: 1. It’s actually spelled vagina (I should’ve asked for the word origin). 2. Sex is when the penis goes into the vagina (Everything I knew was a lie.).

Why am I telling this story? Obviously, it’s because I want you to share in my crippling childhood embarrassment. Or because, aside from what I saw on TV or on the internet, this was the only sex education I received outside of school. And while I’m almost positive that I’m the only child who thought it was spelled “phachina,” I can’t be the only child who received little-to-no information about sex at home.

And while I’m almost positive that I’m the only child who thought it was spelled “phachina,” I can’t be the only child who received little-to-no information about sex at home.”


Parents are the first and most influential teachers in their children’s lives. However, according to research, fewer than 20% of parents had ever had a meaningful talk with their children about sex. There’s no denying that it’s an awkward and often uncomfortable topic, from both the parent’s and child’s perspective. The reality of the matter is that sex education introduces itself into children’s lives as early as infancy. Children become aware of their genitals in the same way they become aware of their fingers and toes. When they enter preschool, children become curious about the differences between boys and girls, and often take the first real plunge into sex education with the question: Where do babies come from? As they continue growing older, curiosity blooms; if they don’t receive answers at home, they’ll be more likely to believe whatever information they learn from peers, see in the media, and are exposed to by other sources outside of the home. For this reason, many feel that parents should initiate the discussion of sex with children before they enter puberty – around nine or ten years old. This discussion should include not only the scientific explanations and terms for puberty, human reproduction, and sexually transmitted diseases, but information about birth control, sexual orientation, and healthy relationships as well. This opinion may not be universally accepted, but where opinions fall short, statistics speak loud and clear: children who talk about sex with their parents are less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior as adolescents. The struggle we face here is that not all children and adolescents have a home life structured by two – or even one – parent. Not every child has the opportunity to learn about sex at home, which places more weight on the sex education provided by schools.  

In her book, Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education Before the 1960s, Susan K. Freeman discusses the initial introduction of sex education in school. Formal instruction didn’t gain support or momentum until around the 1940s. However, sex-related curricula during this time weren’t federally or state-mandated; it emerged as experimental teaching in local contexts. This education involved typical life events from puberty to parenthood and included youth-centered discussion about adolescent behavior and intimate relationships. It helped to minimize the taboo attached to sex-related topics in a safe and comfortable setting. Everyone loved and accepted it and it is still successfully implemented in public school curricula today!

No, of course, it’s not. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, abstinence was still the dominant form of sex education, focusing on the development of heterosexual maturity in marriage – which was, of course, only acceptable between a man and a woman. Curricula involving any discussion outside of this challenged tradition and religion, and was therefore strongly opposed. But times have changed! We’re more accepting – more open-minded! In light of new government changes, it’s easy to believe this is true. Hillary’s “whipping and nae nae-ing”, young people are “feeling the Bern”; it’s all so relatable, so refreshing, so progressive! But can the same be said for the touchy topics, like sex education?         

In the U.S., 23 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in public schools.

via the Huffington Post

via the Huffington Post

Not bad, right? But not really that good, either – not even half. This doesn’t mean that the content taught in these states’ public schools is substantial or effective. Only 18 states mandate information about birth control, and a measly 12 require instruction about sexual orientation.

Call me a dreamer, but wouldn’t it make sense to introduce all aspects of a topic when teaching it? And by “topic” I’m, of course, referring to that simple subject which is only the basis of our entire human population. Sex got you here, sex got me here, sex got the politicians in government – who pass laws about sex education – here; it’s not a subject that we can just ignore or avoid. I mean OK, I guess you could argue that technically the subject of math is also the basis – humans multiply to make more humans that are added to the world and then other humans are subtracted by death, and our population is growing exponentially and only a fraction of people receive substantial sex education. We haven’t always spoken English or written poetry, but the existence of human population at any time proves that we’ve ALWAYS been having sex. So naturally, we spend the majority of our schooling learning about every other subject. See the divide?

” Sex got you here, sex got me here, sex got the politicians in government – who pass laws about sex education – here; it’s not a subject that we can just ignore or avoid.”

While it isn’t mandated in all states, sex education is taught in almost all public secondary schools in the United States – 93% to be exact. Additionally, 95% of students ages 15 – 19 have received some sex education. However, since the late 1990s – up until very recently –  federal legislation funded abstinence-only programs, which promote abstinence exclusively and specifically exclude advocating contraceptive uses or methods, aside from stressing their failure rates. In 37 states, it is a requirement that, should sex education be taught, information on abstinence is provided. In the 2012 fiscal year, Congress provided $180 million for “medically

via the Huffington Post

via the Huffington Post

accurate and age-appropriate” sex education programs. Yet, an additional $55 million was provided that same year for abstinence-until-marriage programs. These programs don’t exist all across the country, and while I’d like to contradict what I’m guessing readers may assume, the facts only strengthen such assumptions: these teachings are found predominantly in the South. If we look at traditional and fundamentally religious values in the United States, the southern states cling most tightly to them. With this in mind, it’s not hard to understand why abstinence programs are the majority – if not the only – content covered in southern sex education: it is the only acceptable option for unmarried teenagers. In the words of She’s The Man’s Principal Gold, “the best way to not… is to not.” Even further, six specific states have education laws dubbed “No Promo Homo” laws. In Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Texas, it is illegal to promote homosexuality as acceptable behavior in schools. In these states, people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer are considered inferior.      

Thirty-five states allow parents to opt out of sex education on behalf of their child. This raises another question: should families have more power than schools when it comes to teaching their children about the birds and the bees? Parents have every right to disclose or withhold as much or as little information about sex as they feel appropriate. But what happens when children don’t learn about sex at home or at school? In a generation of “Netflix and Chill,” “hooking up,” and readily-accessible internet pornography, it’s almost impossible to go a day without being exposed to sexual content in some way, shape, or form. I refuse to accept the possibility of children growing up with expectations of sex only as portrayed in pornography or movies; neither are an accurate or healthy depiction of what happens in real life. I cannot stress this enough. Neither of them is accurate or healthy. I didn’t want to get too aggressive here and use caps, but please take the italics as a notion that I’m so, so serious.   

“I refuse to accept the possibility of children growing up with expectations of sex only as portrayed in pornography or movies; neither are an accurate or healthy depiction of what happens in real life.”

The discussion of sex education in regards to what and how much should be taught in public schools has gone on for decades; there is not one specific sex education program that is nationally accepted. We cannot ignore something that is so ingrained in our human nature, and we can’t pretend that students aren’t going to have sex. In fact, men and women in the U.S. typically begin having sex at around 16 or 17 years of age. This being the case, it’s only logical that they are provided with relevant information at appropriate ages. What do I mean by relevant information? Let me throw a few ideas out there: sex is far more than a scientific act. If students are being taught about the physical aspect of sex, the mental, emotional, and psychological aspects should also be addressed. The consequences should be addressed – and not in a Mean Girls, “if you have sex, you will get chlamydia and die,” kind of way. Students don’t need to be

via memegenerator.net

via memegenerator.net

scared, they need to be informed. Promoting abstinence is not informing. Factual data speaks to the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only programs. In 2007, findings revealed that federally-funded abstinence-only programs “have no beneficial impact on young people’s sexual behavior”. Between 2004 – 2008, five authoritative reports found that such programs actually do not delay young people from having sex, do not reduce risk-taking behaviors, and – here’s the kicker – frequently include misinformation. If that’s not enough, national data states that the more strongly abstinence is emphasized in state laws and policies, the higher the average teenage pregnancy and birth rate. Also, have you had a conversation with a teenager lately? I might be completely off, but it’s pretty common that when you tell a teenager not to do something, that thing becomes 10 million times more appealing.

“Students don’t need to be scared, they need to be informed. Promoting abstinence is not informing.”

The first time I learned about sex in an academic setting was fifth grade. I had been warned by older students about the dreaded “movie” but wasn’t sure what to expect. In a co-ed group, we learned about the male and female genitalia and the process in which a sperm fertilizes an egg to make a baby. (Side note: hearing the definition of an “erection”, coupled with detailed imagery, may cause side effects such as nausea, discomfort, and the desire to break up with your pre-teen boyfriend) We were then split into male and female groups and shown separate videos. What they showed the males is still a question that keeps me up at night, but my female group learned about the menstrual cycle and collectively cringed at the images of tampons and pads. Aside from being shown the same videos yet again in seventh grade, that was all of the sex education I received for the rest of my middle and high school career.

In a non-academic setting, sex education filtered into my life in various but equally awkward and uncomfortable ways: Truth or Dare at a party, Spin the Bottle in my friend’s half-finished basement, and high school teachers mandating we “make room for Jesus” on the church basement dance floor. There was also the obvious — but daunting — search bar on Google, but I quickly learned where buzzwords on the topic brought me and vowed to never test my curiosity again. The majority of my sex education came from things I’d heard from others and my own experiences of trial and error.

I thought STD’s were a test you had to take to get into college, and condoms were another name for apartments — like the one my grandparents had in Florida. I thought people only had sex to make babies because I couldn’t fathom why else anyone would ever want to do it. I thought all relationships were exactly like the ones I saw on Degrassi. When my grandmother and grandfather divorced and my grandmother moved in with the woman next door, my world was turned upside down because it felt disgusting and unnatural and forbidden. As a young and uninformed child, it was all very confusing and frustrating – to the point where my siblings and I considered egging her house. I am not a horrible person, I promise – but no one had sat me down, in a safe setting where I felt comfortable enough to ask questions and taught me about any of these things. Still, I had to learn because all of these present themselves in life at some point or another. Recently, President Obama has acknowledged the ineffectiveness of and taken action against abstinence-only programs, removing all of their government funding, so excuse me while I let out a sarcastic DUH! Removing government funding for these programs won’t get rid of them, but it’s a start. I understand the reasoning behind promoting abstinence; I’m not necessarily against it, but I am 100% against it being the only education adolescents and teens receive. Similarly, it’s encouraging that most public secondary schools provide at least some sex education, but students need to receive all of the information – all of the facts, consequences, and aspects of sex.  

“I thought STD’s were a test you had to take to get into college, and condoms were another name for apartments — like the one my grandparents had in Florida.”     

My original thought when my sister told me the actual definition of sex was, then what? And that’s what I’m trying to convey; why would we only teach – if taught at all – the scientific explanation of sex? Then what?

Laura Somogie
Laura Somogie is a Communications major with a concentration in Public Relations in her third year at Drexel. She's minoring in Spanish and Organizational Behavior, but has always loved to read and write. Her hobbies include laughing at her own jokes, eating way too much pizza, and taking a ridiculous amount of pictures with her kitten named Cat.

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