How much do American students really not know about sex? And does it matter? Some believe that if we withhold information about sex, that will keep our youth from participating in it. My experience as a sexual education teacher disproves that theory.
First, let's look at it this way: what do you do when something is wrong with your computer and you don't know the right way to fix it? Do you sit around and wait for someone to teach you? Not usually. You do one of two options. You fool around with the control panel and all those buttons that don't make sense and try to figure it out. Or you look up the information yourself online or call a friend and see if they know.
So if young people don't know about sex or how to have safe sex, what are they going to do? They're going to start fooling around or experimenting and see what they can figure out. Or they're going to talk to their friends and see if they have "reliable" information.
Trust me, if we're not there giving the right information, they're not getting it and they're not waiting for it.
Here are some of the recent questions I've had from students.
From a 12-year-old young woman already sexually active: "Wait, there's three ‘holes'?"
You would not believe how many young women and men I meet that do not know the female body has a urethra, a vagina, and an anus. They think you urinate, have your period, and have sex with one hole. These are people having sex who do not even know where the penis is going. Why is this happening? Maybe it has to do with the fact that most Americans are too embarrassed to even say the word "vagina," let alone teach a young girl that she has one.
From a college student at a prestigious university:
"Can I get pregnant from swallowing semen?"
A 21 year-old sexually active woman honestly does not know if she can get from swallowing semen during oral sex. How is this happening? And, in case other people are wondering — and I have a feeling a lot of people are wondering — no, you cannot get pregnant from swallowing semen. The semen has to be in or near your vagina in order for pregnancy to occur.
From a middle-aged high school teacher:
"You can get HIV from saliva right?"
No! HIV is transmitted through four liquids: blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. It is not in saliva, sweat, tears, snot, or urine. Many students do not even know how to avoid HIV anymore because they are so damn confused about how it is transmitted.
What I see everyday is an extreme lack of basic knowledge concerning reproductive anatomy and functions and both pregnancy and HIV prevention. And it's not just with our youth. Many adults do not know this information either. How can Americans be expected to protect themselves and avoid risky behavior if they do not have the proper foundation of sexual education? How can we teach our youth if we don't know the information ourselves? I've said it before and I will say it again. We are failing our young people.
What are young people learning? What are these federally-funded abstinence only programs really saying? Here are some of my personal favorites, which you can find at SIECUS on their "In Their Own Words" fact sheet.
- "AIDS can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact." Reasonable Reasons to Wait, Teacher's guide.
- "No competent educator should use the term ‘safe sex' to imply that condoms make sexual activity safe… What do you think using the term ‘safe sex' implies in a discussion of condoms. Do condoms make sexual activity moral? Legal? Healthy?" Facing Reality, Parent Teacher guide.
And my all time favorite:
- "Men sexually are like microwaves and women sexually are like crockpots… a woman is stimulated more by touch and romantic words. She is far more attracted by a man's personality while a man is stimulated by sight. A man is usually less discriminating about those to whom he is physically attracted." WAIT Training, Workshop Manual.
Instead of teaching basic sexual education and prevention methods, we are lying, sacrificing necessary information for the sake of "morality," and perpetuating gender stereotypes.
And we wonder why our young people are getting pregnant and contracting sexually transmitted infections. Look — I hate the fact that some 12-year-old students are having sex. And I cringe inside when a young man in middle school tells me he received oral sex for the first time in fourth grade. But I also know that hiding the facts from them is not the solution. To withhold information from our youth that could prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections is nothing short of dangerous and immoral.