5 Ways Sex Ed Promotes Shame

Image: Isaac Bowen via Flickr
Image: Isaac Bowen via Flickr

By Birdie McNeill

Wouldn’t it be great if sex education helped students feel comfortable and informed when they (eventually) pursued healthy, sexual relationships? Unfortunately, sex education in the US often does the opposite, ignoring the most essential safety information and promoting a sense of shame around body, gender, and sexuality using scare tactics.

“On the last day, the teacher dimmed the lights and had us write out a letter explaining to our friends and family that we had just been given the news that we had AIDS, and explained how we had contracted it. After an hour of people crying in class and thinking about death, she tried to encourage us to keep that letter with us.”

The above story represents one of many ways students are taught to feel fear and shame in response to their own sexual impulses, a form of body oppression that is rarely included in body politics. Here are five ways that today’s sex ed programs impinge students’ emerging sexual freedom.

1. It Places a Premium on “Purity”

Schools use a variety of scare tactics to keep students from engaging in sex. Teachers sometimes use analogies like comparing virginity to a piece of gum: No one wants it once it’s been chewed. Another “educational tool” involves a piece of tape stuck to a student’s arm. The tape is removed and stuck to another student, and this activity continues until the tape is dirty and no longer sticks, representing a person’s value decreasing as their number of sexual partners increases.

Statistics show that abstinence-only education is not successful at reducing teen pregnancies, as is often the intention. However, discussions of the effectiveness of this education miss the most emotionally damaging effects. The shame tactics used in abstinence-only education are particularly damaging to survivors of sexual assault, who may feel as though they are worthless since they are no longer “untouched.”

Even students who have no experience with sexual assault suffer from this message. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 47% of high school students have had sex, and 15% of students have had four or more sexual partners. These students must now cope with the societal message that they have already lost their value because they are no longer “pure.”

2. It Teaches That Sex is Not for Pleasure

Even outside of abstinence-only education, our sex education often focuses on the science of reproduction. This emphasis sends the implicit message that sex is for procreation. Statistics show that the average American has sex 127 times a year, and reproduces only twice over their lifetime. This means that only one in roughly 6,000 sexual encounters result in a baby. With these statistics in mind, we must realize that the primary function of sex is pleasure and connection, not reproduction. Our culture’s unwillingness to educate our youth (particularly girls) on this point contributes to the idea that students are “dirty” for wanting to engage in sex for pleasure. Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, wrote:

“It sometimes struck me that we’d performed the psychological equivalent of a clitoridectomy on our daughters: as if we believed, somehow, that by hiding the truth from them (that sex, including oral sex and masturbation, can and should feel fabulous) that they won’t find out, and so will stay ‘pure.’”

The level of ignorance about sexual pleasure (especially the shroud of mystery surrounding the clitoris) represents a major failing of our educational system. Omitting pleasure from sexual dialogue inhibits adolescents from fully exploring their sexuality, contributing to shame about their sexual desires and behaviors.

3. Students Can’t Use “Dirty Words”

In sex ed, teachers are instructed to use scientific terms. While at a glance, this may seem like the professional choice, it forces students to use words that may be unfamiliar to them, increasing feelings of discomfort and alienation when talking about sex. Policing the use of colloquial terms like “dick” in the classroom contributes to an atmosphere where a playful attitude towards sex is wrong. Language restriction in the classroom is one more way students are told that their relationship with sex is inappropriate.

4. No Queers Allowed

Sex ed curricula are often exclusionary, assuming that students are heterosexual and cisgender. Topics of gender and sexual orientation are frequently left out of the curriculum or discussed with negativity. In fact, three states require that homosexuality is taught as a “criminal lifestyle”. Only 5% of LGBT students are taught positive information about LGBT issues, leaving the other 95% of LGBT students with an instilled sense of shame around their identity.

The many LGBT students who are not given any education regarding their sexuality are forced to seek out this information elsewhere. LGBT students are five times more likely than their peers to research sex ed topics on the internet, representing a state of confusion and misinformation about LGBT issues following sex education. In this environment, LGBT students are (either implicitly or explicitly) taught that their sexual and/or gender identity is unacceptable.

5. STDs Are Seen as a Threat

Education about contraceptives is spotty in our nation, with some states are even banning contraceptive demonstrations. But beyond this lack of prevention information, an underexamined aspect of our sex education is the attitude presented towards sexual health, in particular STDs and STIs.

It’s a pervasive belief in our society that having an STD makes you “dirty” and unlovable, a belief that, if not created in our sex education curriculum, undergoes continued development in it. While the intention behind STD prevention education (when it is taught at all) is good, the negative stigma placed on individuals with STDs breeds a sense of shame among students who have contracted or will eventually contract an STD or STI. STDs are sometimes used as a fear tactic to “prevent” students from engaging in premarital sex, often with the negative effects of STDs exaggerated to increase the perceived risk of engaging in sex.

What would more progressive sex education look like? Some other countries have demonstrated that education that includes information on pleasure, gender, contraception, and alternative sexualities supports a culture with lower rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. Organizations like SIECUS aim to integrate some of these topics into the standard curriculum.

Until that day, websites like Scarleteen and Oh Joy Sex Toy are hard at work making sexual information accessible to teens. Right now, our culture’s sex education primarily happens outside the classroom. We all have a role in promoting safe and healthy sexual relationships, so skip the shame and let yours be a voice of sex-positivity!

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