Forward Thinking is a values development project organized by Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism and Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers. Previous topics include the nature of civic responsibility and templates for mourning practices. This week, Libby Anne asks: What would you tell teenagers about sex?
I’ve written about contraception and reproductive health a lot on this blog, and I’ve mocked stupidly sexist sex ed curricula, but I’ve never been called upon to answer questions about sex in real life. So what would I tell kids and teens? This is my first comprehensive attempt at this question. I think I’ll divide this post in two parts: the information that I think should be covered in sex ed classes, and what I would say to my own theoretical children.
I received fairly objective, comprehensive sex ed in middle and high school, so I don’t have disturbing memories of, for example, the entire class spitting in a glass of water, as an illustration of the utter worthlessness of people who have multiple partners. I absolutely support sex ed in schools, because kids need to get accurate information from somewhere. It probably isn’t going to come from their friends or the media, and there’s no guarantee that it will come from their parents, either. I’ve read praise of the Unitarian Universalist “Our Whole Lives” sex ed program, which is for kindergartners through adults and seems to emphasize sexual ethics and diversity. I know lots of other people recommend Scarleteen for teenagers seeking resources about sex and sexuality. I would include…
Puberty. Reproductive anatomy. The menstrual cycle, which I think should be explicitly taught in terms of the fertility cycle; it’s not enough to tell girls that they’ll bleed once a month because mumblegarble babies. Teach them that their fertility varies over the course of their cycle and over the course of their lives. Tell them that it’s good to pay attention to their bodies, and that it’s not shameful. Tell the boys that, too.
Sexually transmitted infections. Talk about all of them, in detail, with pictures. Talk about how the risk of transmission can be mitigated through the use of condoms and dental dams, but emphasize that they don’t completely eliminate risk. Teach them how to use condoms. Talk about the HPV vaccine. Emphasize that vaginal intercourse isn’t the only way to contract an STI, and that same-sex couples also need to be careful. Talk about testing, treatment, and communication between partners. Make it informational, but not shameful. Shame isn’t helpful.
Contraception. Talk about every method available, and compare their rates of effectiveness. I think it’s good to encourage teens to start thinking about long-term methods, such as IUDs and implants. Say that some girls and women also use hormonal contraceptives for therapeutic purposes. Emphasize that it’s important to make intentional decisions about fertility. Say that contraception does sometimes fail, and no one needs to be ashamed when it does. Talk about emergency contraception, including Plan B and the copper IUD. Talk about sterilization. Tell boys that they have a responsibility to be intentional about their fertility, and that they need to be involved in using contraception. Hopefully we’ll start seeing some good male-user contraceptives in the next few years, as well.
Abortion. I know talking about abortion in public schools could raise a lot of hackles, but people need to know about abortion procedures, and how procedures differ depending on the the stage of pregnancy.
Pregnancy and Birth. Fetal development, what to expect during pregnancy. What birth is like. Reproductive technologies. I think it’s also a good idea to talk about adoption. I feel like we’re remarkably divorced from the realities of birth in our culture; somehow I’ve made it to age 25 without either giving birth or witnessing someone else do it, which is a major departure from historical reality. [I've also never been present at a death. Given that everyone is born and everyone dies, this seems utterly bizarre.]
Sex and Sexuality
Sexuality: It’s a spectrum, and it also includes asexuality.
Gender: It’s non-binary, and some people are transgender.
Biological sex: It’s also non-binary, and some people are intersex.
None of this is bad or abnormal.
I think it’s really important for sex ed programs to include a discussion of ethics, including sexual and relationship violence, the necessity of informed consent, and respect for bodily autonomy. This is what I would want to tell my own kids:
Your body is your own, and you get to make decisions about it. No one else is entitled to access your body. (I think this starts in early childhood; children should not be forced to provide affection, for example.)
We have a mutual obligation to respect each other’s bodily autonomy. If someone wants you to stop doing something, you have to stop. If you’re sexually active, you need to obtain definitive consent. You have to communicate with your partner and respect their wishes. That’s basic human decency.
If someone transgresses your consent and autonomy and assaults you, it is not your fault. It’s theirs.
It’s important to make thoughtful decisions about sex and reproduction, to be considerate and respectful of yourself and your partner, and to take care of your sexual health.
Virginity is a concept laden with centuries of misogynist crap. Rather than “losing your virginity,” I support positively framing becoming sexually active. (Suggestions? “Sexually active” sounds so clinical.) Having sex for the first time might feel like a really big deal, but that doesn’t mean it symbolizes a loss.
Your worth as a human being isn’t remotely contingent on whether or not you’ve had sex. You might hear that you’re sullied if you’ve “lost your virginity,” or that you need to have sex to be cool, or to be an adult. Neither is true. The only right time to have sex is when both you and your partner feel that you’re ready to have sex, and that you want to have sex. And that’s something you get to decide for yourself.
What would you add?
Update: Libby Anne has posted the roundup! This one provoked a lot of responses.