I had the best sex-ed teacher, in spite of growing up in sex-ed-optional Arkansas. Mrs. McClendon was thorough, professional, and direct -- I have a vivid memory of her dryly saying there are "three kinds of sex: oral, vaginal, and anal." She was badass. And more importantly, Mrs. McClendon made sure her students discussed reproductive health as part of a larger discussion about overall health.
I was one of the lucky ones. In addition to Arkansas -- which boasts one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the US -- and neighboring states not requiring sex ed for students, any sex ed that is taught must stress abstinence. Beyond those guidelines, specific sexual-health lesson plans are at the behest of local school districts. Therefore, sex education in states like mine vary wildly; and lots of kids only learn about abstinence.
To figure out how people survive this kind of schooling, I talked to a bunch of people 30 years old or younger. A few went to religious schools, but most went to public schools in Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, or Georgia.
"Sex ed" was more like one afternoon lesson plan, or a subset of health or biology... and covered deodorant more than condoms
"There was little talk about how to access contraception if you didn't want to talk to your parents, besides buying condoms, and definitely no discussion of how to actually use it." -- Jenn, 29
"We were told how important our chastity was, and... how boys would like us more and we would be better people as virgins waiting until marriage." -- Kaylee, 24
"Someone said something about porn being like cocaine and eating away at your brain or something. And how it will ruin sex for the rest of your life." -- Josh, 26
Homosexuality wasn't mentioned... but if it was, it was frowned upon
"[The girls' basketball coach, who was also the sex-ed instructor, said] homosexuality is not natural and a choice. I remember him saying they are either people trying to get attention or act out... he was not as harsh with the idea of lesbians." -- Kyle, 30
"Consent" was shrouded in mystery -- or not mentioned at all
"For consent, he talked about it a lot. In his discussions, it almost always fell back on how 'girls needed to keep their legs closed.'" -- Kyle
"No, none." -- Everyone else I interviewed
With school sex ed lacking, most relied on the internet
"Everything else I learned about sex came from rather sad and nerdy places, like M-rated Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction." -- Becca, 29
"I just kinda learned along the way I guess. Real-life situations, porn, talking to female friends. And I'm sure there are things I could still learn." -- Matt, 28
"I guess I probably heard some kids talking [about STDs/condoms] and I probably had to look up the meaning of what they were saying because I did not ask my parents." -- Melisa, 24
"I remember hearing things on shows and Googling them afterward. I distinctly remember this one: 'What does blow job mean?'" -- Summer, 24
"My college girlfriend and I bought a book about sex and learned that way. I remember sneakily reading it in my dorm room because I didn't want any friends to know I didn't know everything about it already." -- Josh
A lack of sex ed deeply affects people
"My general ignorance coupled with growing up in a Christian church that viewed sex as the filthiest of transgressions totally warped me. I didn't have sex until I got married at age 22 to a guy I pretty much only married so that I could have guilt-free sex with him. We're divorced now." -- Rebecca, 29
"I think I would have been a lot more confident overall, and especially in regards to my body and sexuality, if sex ed had focused more on education rather than discouraging teens from doing something most teens were already doing." -- Maria, 26
"As a survivor of a sexual assault that occurred in college, it would have been extremely beneficial to have received any resources or even any explanation of what rape even was." -- Kaylee
"I had a lot of friends who had sex in high school while being taught abstinence-only, and that sex before marriage is a sin. It didn't seem to prevent sex, it just caused people to feel guilty and ashamed unnecessarily." -- Josh
Surprise! Knowing more means making better choices.
Peer-reviewed studies have shown that comprehensive sex education actually delays the initiation of first sexual experience and reduces the number of partners teens have. Oh -- and in case anyone didn't already know: teens who receive abstinence-only sex education still have premarital sex. They just feel bad about it.
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Elizabeth Walker is a freelance writer who believes one should never stop learning. Find her on Twitter: @hydeyourfyres.