Class Dismissed: Why Can’t Anyone Remember High School Sex Ed?
“So, everything looks great here. This follicle sitting on your right ovary tells me that preceding your next cycle, this will be your dominant side”. Eyes glaring over the all now too familiar face mask, this is what the well-meaning Nurse informs me. Yet, as she does, approximately 25 seconds of television static plays in my head. Follicle? Ovaries with dominant sides? Who knew? Well, clearly not me. Relieved to hear that everything’s running like clockwork in that department, I nod along and fake a smile anyway, too embarrassed by my lack of knowledge about the inner workings of my own body to ask her – “what on earth are you on about?”
Walking out of my appointment, I tried to decipher the Nurse’s words by saying them again and again. “Dominant side”. As if repeating them would make me understand the entirety of the female reproductive system, standing in a car park. Of course I was happy to have got the all clear, but I still knew how important it was to have confidence in your own body and its functions. I knew that I needed to understand why. But I didn’t. And I felt stupid.
As I re-traced the pot holes of knowledge, I unlocked a dusty memory, lodged down the back of the metaphorical couch in my brain. High school sex education class. Gulp. It then occurred to me – I only have ONE memory. One lesson, 60 minutes, 10 years ago. That’s the only formal education I can remember having about sexual health – and even then, it’s…erm…not the best. Let me set the scene [clears throat]:
INT. CLASSROOM – DAY
12 year old LARA sits at a desk, palms sweating. Her first sex ed lesson is about to start. Over the “CHUSSSH” of Impulse body spray, she can hear the scoffs and jeers from the boys stirring in the room already. Cheeks burning red hot, the cringe is building up inside her – and the lesson hasn’t even begun yet.
Following this, I remember as a way of elevating the ‘awkwardness’ in the room, my teacher inviting the class up to the front of the room to write slang words for ‘your bits and pits’ (as my mother would call them) on the white board. This was met with great enthusiasm from one boy, who I vividly remember, breaking out in hysterics whilst scribbling ‘MELONS’ on the squeaky surface. After that comedic masterpiece, my recollection is a bit foggy. I do however, remember being introduced to a smorgasbord of STI’s, and then colouring in a clip art illustration of a womb as if it was an Under 12’s menu from Frankie and Bennies.
But all jokes aside, that’s it.
In regards to sexual health education particularly, there are serious implications which arise out of poor or misinformed teaching. I’m sure many of us can relate to noticing a change downstairs, then immediately assuming the end is nigh. Confusion leads to fear. Yet, this fear can easily be prevented by providing young people with the right knowledge to allow them to feel confident and safe in their own skin.
After my brief trip down, pre-pubescent, memory lane, I asked my friends if they could remember any of their high school sex ed classes. I was relieved, although still concerned, that their experiences were just as limited as mine. It was actually rather worrying to learn that one of my friends who, despite attending one of the best private schools in Portugal, had never had a single sexual health education lesson. Due to the school’s reputation and Catholic values, it was completely dismissed. Everything she learnt about the workings of her own body was passed through friends, family and the internet. It wasn’t until she went to University that she found out what Chlamydia was. Prior to this, she had thought it was a disease on par with HIV. Similarly, one of my male friends, who attended a Catholic school here in the UK, told me how he also remembers just one lesson at 13 in which information regarding contraception was omitted. In countries and schools all around the world, traditional values are prioritised over the well-being and safety of students. Indeed, these shared experiences showcase a problematic gap in the knowledge of billions of people’s understanding of, and relationship to, their own bodies (as well as those of others).
Such a compliance with ignorance suggests that if there’s no information, it’ll also not happen, which is simply not true. It’s been proven by studies in America that those who have comprehensive education covering contraception, sexual orientation, relationships, and sexually transmitted disease, experience fewer unplanned pregnancies and cases of sexually transmitted infections than those who do not (University of Southern California, 2013). In all schools, it is imperative that the perspective of faith in regards to relationships should be talked about. Whether private, state, religious, or home-based, schools should be safe spaces which help build trust. By providing honest and accurate information, young people will be able to make their own decisions, and be better equipped to protect themselves, and others, in matters of relationships and sexual health.
With all this in mind, I thought I’d have a look into what sex education looks like in school today (as you do). Suprisingly, here in the UK, relationships education was only made compulsory for all primary and secondary aged pupils in September last year (Department for Education, 2021). To quote the Department for Education, the new curriculum (RSHE), has been designed to ‘make sure young people learn about respect, consent, and privacy’. The switch from what I remember being called ‘PSHCE’ (personal, social, health and citizenship education) to the new ‘RSHE’ (relationships, sex and health education), sounds promising. They’ve openly said the ‘S word’ AND made relationships a priority. You love to see it.
Yet, I must admit, the Government guidance on RSHE (Department for Education, 2019) in regards to pupils with special educational needs and disabilities is rather vague. Which is sad, but expected, which is even sadder. The same vagueness can be applied to LGBTQ+ pupils. Flashing back to my single memory of sex ed class. Ah! I can smell Britney Spears’ ‘Fantasy’ now. What I can recall, is that there was nothing in regards to how to practice safety in same sex relationships - just the overly clinical, scientific workings of heterosexual ones. It wasn’t until reading this guidance that it occurred to me. How isolating must these lessons have felt for those in the class who identified as LGBTQ+? How unprepared, confused, and scared must they have felt to be entering a world where their relationships weren’t even acknowledged? With this in mind, it’s no coincidence that in American states where the teaching of sexual orientation is prohibited (shocking, I know), LGBTQ+ communities are at a higher risk of contracting STDs (University of Southern California, 2013).
This correlation demonstrates how serious the issue of sexual health education is. It also showcases how acceptable and normalised discrimination in the classroom continues to be. For example, by law, in Alabama, Arizona, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas, sex education MUST be negative towards sexual orientation (University of Southern California, 2013). Places of education have a responsibility. They have a duty of care that has for too long been overlooked by archaic ideals which are putting the health and wellbeing of young adults and communities at risk. Where people’s health, safety and well-being is concerned, there’s no room for awkwardness. No room to fear the ‘unorthodox’. No room to turn a blind eye.
Without honest and un-biased communication, how are we supposed to rely on those who we are meant to trust? From my own experience, I know that there is a clear disconnect from the information learnt in school, to the language used by medical professionals, and then to the discussion that takes place online. This rings especially true in regards to the vast array of terminology used in regards to menstruation. This only adds to the taboo, often silencing those who menstruate out of fear of embarrassment or confusion. In regards to sexual health education online, it is fundamental to know how to make well founded decisions. Due to a lack of quality information provided by school, one of my friends told me that the majority of her sex education came from Youtuber, Laci Green, in 2011. My friend was moved by the accessibility and frankness with which Green spoke about the anatomy and function of the female and male body. So, for all its imperfections, the internet should in no way be overlooked for its power to inform and provide a source of comfort for young people learning about their own bodies.
I’d be a liar to say that, a decade on from the only sex ed class I can remember, the embarrassment I felt in my lack of knowledge didn’t still exist. Indeed, everyone who I have spoken to on this subject has provided me with such different experiences, demonstrating the gaps in the manner in which sex education is made available to pupils. With some of my friends receiving no teaching at all to others having their classes split by gender, the disparity in my generation’s knowledge of sexual and personal health is clear. Yet, having read that teachers in the UK are turning to a more personalised way of learning is hopeful. By listening to student’s queries and opinions, teachers are being encouraged to proactively build the curriculum around the topics that their pupils find important and relevant (as naturally these will differ from year group to year group). This focus does instil a sense of confidence in the future of sexual health teaching. Its significance cannot be overlooked. Sexual health education is a fundamental life skill, the act of sex itself being just one component. Lessons should be concerned with the relationships we have with others as well as ourselves. Honest, accurate, and accessible education is key to ensure we live safer, healthier and happier lives.
Words by Lara Bland
Art by Naomi Smith
- https://nursing.usc.edu/blog/americas-sex-education/ (University of Southern California, 2013)
- https://dfemedia.blog.gov.uk/2021/03/16/how-schools-and-colleges-are-helping-build-a-safer-society-based-on-respecting-others-and-healthy-relationships/ (Department for Education, 2021)
- https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/908013/Relationships_Education__Relationships_and_Sex_Education__RSE__and_Health_Education.pdf (Department for Education, 2019)