For many women, high school sex education is a distant memory. Maybe a gym teacher or health teacher taught you about human anatomy, muttered a few things about the “birds and the bees,” and gave you a stick of deodorant. Or maybe you never even had sex ed—according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, fewer than half of the states in the US currently require public schools to teach it. And only 20 states require that, if provided, sex and/or HIV education must be medically accurate.
“Depending on where you live, young people could receive anything from no sex education, to abstinence-only sex education, to well-designed, comprehensive programs that help build both skills and values,” says Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, certified sexuality educator and sexually transmitted disease expert
“We don’t want to just focus on danger either; most people have good relationships as they grow up, and we want to encourage positive sexuality as well,” adds John Santelli, MD, MPH, professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
Regardless of what our sex education entailed, we’ve got one thing in common: Many of us feel that we have holes in our sexual knowledge.
“These gaps occur because so much of sex education is focused on anatomy and pregnancy prevention rather than empowering people to make informed choices,.
While our sex ed days may be long behind us, we can’t help but think of what we wished we had learned about our sexuality earlier on. Here, real women share what their sex education was lacking.
What it feels like the first time
“I went to a really small public school in the south. Our biology teacher got stuck with teaching our health class, and he only talked about two things. One was that we were all going through puberty and that meant that we were going to sweat more—so we should all wear deodorant—and that all the females would get their period once a month, which meant we would be really emotional for 5-7 days.
Birth control methods
“Our teacher mentioned condoms (both male and female), diaphragms, and birth control pills, but not IUDs. I now have a copper IUD, and I wish I’d learned about them sooner because I didn’t realize there was a highly successful birth control method that was non-hormonal. It also might have been good to know where to get birth control—I don’t even remember how I figured that one out.”
Knowledge about STDs
“I really never had sex ed in school. They showed us a film, or slides, in 5th grade to show us how our bodies would be changing. I grew up in the late 70’s and early 80’s and it seemed like parents and educators didn’t think talking about sex was appropriate. But information about STDs would have been beneficial. I hope I don’t sound naive, but back then, I didn’t know anything about them. My husband of 29 years—whom I’m no longer married to—was unfaithful many times in our marriage, so I was scared once I knew more about STDs. It would have been helpful to know the risks earlier on.”
Anything at all
“I wish I had a sex ed class. In my days, sex wasn’t talked about much unless a girl was a ‘tramp’ or was ‘easy.’ I remember in 8th grade I had my first real kiss, and it included the slip of the tongue—which totally freaked me out. I remember writing in my diary, ‘I don’t think this can happen, but I hope I don’t get pregnant from French kissing Mike.’ I remember 8th or 9th grade hearing about eggs and sperm, but really there was no discussion about condoms, oral sex, or anything like that. Basically, sex was not discussed; it was private for a married couple and I didn’t pursue it otherwise. Conversations came from trashy magazines, books, and slumber party conversations.” (Here are the answers to 12 awkward sex questions.)
Female sexual desire
“I wish I had learned that sex can sometimes be weird, awkward, ridiculous, gross, funny, uncomfortable, fun, strange, and awesome. I feel like it was held up on this pedestal of ultimate adult-ness that is to be taken very seriously—and in many aspects, it should be—but I didn’t realize how weird and fun it could be, too. I also wish masturbation and sexual desire had been addressed to the girls and not just the boys. Finding out other women masturbated and wanted to have a lot of sex was a light bulb moment in my life. I feel like I missed out on knowing that my body is mine. It seemed like I learned about my body parts from afar and they were designed to only be annoying—like periods every month—and then to have sex with my husband once I was married, of course, and then to have a baby. I didn’t realize that I was really in charge of myself until I learned how to share myself with another person.”
Positive body image
“My sex education only included a cartoon about where babies come from. I think it showed a floating egg and a swimming sperm meeting, that was it. Personally, what I missed was having a positive identity about being somebody who looks different, because I didn’t fit into the realm of what’s traditionally considered beautiful due to a childhood illness. It probably took me until I was 50 to come into a place of acknowledging my own personal beauty—I would say that’s a big hole. It’s important to teach people from a young age to appreciate who they are in all of their strengths and all of their weaknesses. I think that goes along with not telling a boy he can’t wear dresses or telling a girl she can’t look like a boy—just allowing more mutability for identity,”