Let’s Talk about Sex . . . but only after you’ve talked about it with your friends and learned all kinds of misinformation
It was the summer before fourth grade. I was at my friend’s house and we found a copy of Where Did I Come From? on the top shelf of the bookcase in her living room. We read it from cover to cover. We stared at each other in disbelief. Then we read it again. After that, we got out a tape recorder and recorded ourselves reading it and then played the recording back. We were fascinated.
We shared our discovery with my friend’s mom, who advised me to walk home and let my mom know about the reading material I had encountered that afternoon. (Perhaps there also was a phone call to my mom while I was in transit; I don’t know.) I remember my mom was in the middle of teaching a piano lesson, so I patiently waited upstairs and then told her all I had learned at the first opportunity. She was awesome. She answered every question I had, including several that I probably would have been too embarrassed to ask if I had been a little older.
That must have been the summer that a lot of kids “found out,” because sex was all the buzz when we walked into our fourth grade classrooms. Lots of whispers of, “Do you know?” and “Our parents do that!” And, looking back, I don’t think that was too young to learn about sex. I handled it fine, and so did my peers. I will have no problem with my kids learning about sex at age eight, nine, or ten, at least in general terms. I hope the conversations I have with them will evolve as they grow and more details become age-appropriate. I want to talk to them before they hear too much from their friends. And, they will hear things.
In fifth grade, we got the “Our Changing Bodies” lessons, with my teacher in charge of the girls and our school principal taking the boys in another room. We used the same book for fifth and sixth grade health education, and I clearly remember my teacher telling us not to skip ahead because we would learn about actual sex next year and then hearing the quiet yet urgent flipping of pages that immediately followed. Seventh grade science devoted a week to sex education, and my teacher put a box in the front of the room in which we could leave any questions we wanted to ask anonymously. There were some intense queries from some very confused and frightened students, as I recall, and Ms. Mason answered them all with respect and compassion. Ninth grade health class brought more in-depth material and some very graphic photos of end-stage syphilis. Senior year gave us the condom on the cucumber lecture in the auditorium, with the expected snickering. There were permission slips that went home in every instance, and there were usually just one or two kids who had to go sit in the library until we were done.
None of these classroom instances compelled me to have sex. But, I was glad to have the knowledge and to be able to have rational, informed conversations about the topic.
I am glad that sex education was taught throughout my schooling. My mom talked to me (or at least was willing to respond to my questions) but many kids do not have a parent at home who will do that. Perhaps a class discussion will encourage kids to ask questions at home to a mom or dad who might not address it otherwise. Or, at the very least, they will get some information about how sex works (the level of misinformation is shocking) and how to protect themselves. Ideally, yes, parents should have these tender moments with their children when they sit down and discuss how sex is an act of love between two people who are committed to one another for eternity and if you even think about having sex in high school (or earlier), your genitals will explode and then fall off (or something equally as compelling). But, that doesn’t happen.
The CDC reports that 46% of our kids are having sex before they graduate from high school. This isn’t because they are exposed to sex education in the classroom. Just as scary is the statistic that around 40% of these kids aren’t protecting themselves. I don’t think kids should have sex in high school. (Both literally inside the high school . . . we all know someone who did that . . . or during that time of their lives.) But, if they are, I want it hammered home that they need protection. If their parents aren’t going to be responsible and have that conversation, it needs to happen elsewhere. The alternative is an ongoing waiting list of pregnant girls signing up to star in the next season of Teen Mom as well as a bunch of babies who are more likely to be raised without a father, to struggle in school, and to live in poverty than their peers who are born to older mothers.
This post was prompted by my reading of commentary regarding State Senator Stacey Campfield’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill (yes, the same fine legislator who recently asserted the notion that AIDS was brought to our country by a pilot having sex with a monkey), a proposed piece of legislation that would ban any discussion of sexual orientation before the ninth grade. My research led me to investigate how sex education is handled in Tennessee in general. I did not know that our state does not require sex education for its students and if it does, it must emphasize abstinence. I also didn’t know that current law forbids schools from teaching any sex education until the ninth grade. Sex education then can be taught to high school students in the appropriate classes (biology, health, etc). Doesn’t that seem too late? I’m not asserting that a lot of kids are having sex by the ninth grade, but I can guarantee most of them are talking about it.
The statistics for Tennessee are troubling. We are higher than the national average in teen pregnancies, teen STD rates, and percentage of high school students who didn’t use a condom the last time they had sex. There are a lot of teenagers in our state having sex and truly not knowing how to prevent pregnancy or maybe just not getting the lifelong consequences of their decision not to protect themselves (if the ill-advised decision to have sex is made in the first place).
I don’t want the government to invade into the private sexual decisions of young people, like, say, a Rick Santorum might. Those moral questions must be addressed within a family. But, I do think that sex education has its place in a school curriculum before the ninth grade. Boys and girls are learning all kinds of wrong information during discussions that take place as they ride school buses and walk through school hallways and sit in school cafeterias; that conversation shouldn’t stop when they step into the classroom.