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School's In Session. Sex Ed Is, As Usual, Not.

Heteronormative teachings permeate the limited sex ed most Americans receive in school

( Charles Deluvio / Unsplash )


It’s no secret that this school year finds us much different than those past. In between our Zoom lectures, pandemic screenings and news of a world on fire, we can find solace in at least one constant: sex ed in America is still disappointingly lacking.

While sex ed curriculum can vary between each school district, only 17 states mandate that, when provided, sex and HIV education must be medically accurate, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

The Institute’s research also finds that 39 states require provision of information on abstinence, with 29 states requiring that it is stressed. Nineteen states require sex education to include the “importance of engaging in sexual activity only within marriage.” And only nine states require the importance of consent to be discussed. 

While this all might sound a bit doom-and-gloom (because it kinda is), there’s some light at the end of this dark, shame-filled tunnel: a boom in alternatives as seen through pop culture and social media.

Sex-positive shows aimed at education, including the wildly popular Big Mouth and aptly named Sex Education, comprise what The Cut has called a “golden era of sex-positive representations of puberty and adolescence.” As much as these shows entertain their millions of viewers, they provide much of the information about sex that schools won’t touch on.

There’s also plenty of Instagram accounts, such as those of sex educators Ev’Yan Whitney, Casey Tanner and Sonalee, which aim to bridge the gap that schools leave in the conversation about sexuality.

The Sex Ed is one media platform that has this mission. An online multimedia resource dedicated to sex, health and consciousness education, The Sex Ed attempts to cover all the bases through essays, a podcast, video and more.  

Chloe Cassens, the producer of The Sex Ed podcast, attributes more of her knowledge about sexuality to her position with the platform than to what she was taught in school.

“I still wonder if I totally understand how bad my sex education was,” she said. “I go through my memory and I'm like, ‘Oh, you guys never covered what a clitoris was — at an all-girls school.’” 

The neglect to teach pleasure in school’s sex education is only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, a 2012 study that analyzed early 2000s sex ed curricula found that discussion about pleasurable sex often equated it to dangerous sex with negative outcomes, like regret, pregnancy or STDs.

Cassens went on to explain how, while the sex education she received failed even straight people, “being not straight was not an option, like there was no sex ed when it came to that.”

“I remember getting to college and having to Google what cisgender was…because I was not taught that in school at all,” she said.  

With only 11 states requiring inclusive content regarding sexual orientation, heteronormative teachings permeate the limited sex ed most Americans receive in school. A 2015 survey found that only 12 percent of responding millennials learned about same-sex relationships in their sex ed classes.

“It's a little scary when you think about, what are we learning? What is sex ed in America? It's nothing. It's really basic. It's like, if a penis goes in a vagina you might have a baby… that's the absolute basic definition of what sex is,” Cassens said.

Not only does this lack of comprehensive teaching contribute to reinforced stigma about LGBTQ+ people, but it can have very dangerous, real effects, putting queer kids at a higher risk of negative sexual health outcomes.

Cassens stressed the importance of teaching a holistic view of sexuality – not only the health side of it, but also the emotional aspect that The Sex Ed emphasizes.

Mental health, how you relate with other people, how you see yourself and move through the world are all emotional components that should be included in sex ed, Cassens said.

One of the most serious implications of lacking sexual education comes from what is taught about consent, she said.

“A lot of the time it's like, make sure a man doesn't grab you in a dark alley. It’s like yeah, no shit, I don’t want to get grabbed in a dark alley,” she said. “But there's no discussion of what you can and can't say when you're in an intimate encounter with someone. There's no discussion of what does or does not qualify as non-consensual activity. There's no discussion of what is and isn't a boundary, how to set boundaries.”

Though sex ed tends to be reduced to only what people do with their genitals, its teachings have far-reaching effects across most areas of our society.

Cassens said she thought comprehensive sex ed would do wonders for equal rights.  “Having more mobility and economic equality for women, [for example], relates to sex ed, because if women are given the freedom to work longer, have more choice in how they plan their families, there’s more that they can do and make money for themselves.”

And for Cassens, Gen Z signals hope for change.

“The knowledge that things aren't the way they should be, and the desire to educate yourself and make them right, is something that [Gen Z] exemplifies and is working toward. As much as it’s really depressing to think about the lack of sex ed, the desire to learn more, and at least The Sex Ed and a lot of other platforms exist as alternatives, it’s a great start right now,” she said. “That does make me optimistic.”


If you have more questions about sex education that weren’t answered here, or if you need other sex or relationship advice, fill out this form (anonymously or not) and we’ll give you our hot take in the next Rowdy After Dark.


Morgan is an online writer at Rowdy Magazine and a fourth-year journalism and women’s studies student at UF. You can usually find her at a local coffee shop, petting her latest foster cat or on social media @morgangoldwich.


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