Imagine this: A young person walks in to a health care provider’s office armed with the knowledge they need and deserve about their bodies, their sexual lives and their choices. They are empowered and knowledgeable. Their diverse lives and backgrounds are centered. And their experience isn’t exceptional—it’s typical.
For many young people, this is a fantastical scenario. For too many young people, this is miles away from their actual experiences. It certainly wasn’t mine. The sex education I received can be summed up with three words: prevention, fear and shame.
Policymakers in Alabama prioritized preventing pregnancy and shaming rather over teaching us about our bodies or centering our experiences and our empowerment. The sex education I received ironically barely talked about sex, and most certainly didn’t talk about pleasure, boundaries, consent or even how to recognize healthy and unhealthy sexual and romantic relationships and behaviors. Young LGBTQ students, especially young LGBTQ students of color, certainly did not have their identities and experiences acknowledged and validated in the sex ed classes I sat in.
It’s been at least 13 years since I was a sex ed student, but many young people today are still stuck in that system. We could change that.
Members of Congress in May reintroduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (REHYA) and Youth Access to Sexual Health Services Act (YASHS) to make sure that every young person in America receives comprehensive, medically accurate sex education.
On a panel in Washington, D.C., last year, I heard Dr. Krystal Redman of Spark Reproductive Justice Now! discuss sex and reproductive justice. She said something that I’ve remembered since: “In our society we don’t talk about sex, and because we don’t talk about sex we certainly don’t talk about pleasure.”
That is especially true for women, LGBTQ and non-binary folks of color. Sex ed as we know it now reinforces the idea that sex should be procreative between a heterosexual man and woman; when pleasure does come into the conversation, the majority of the time it is in reference to cis heterosexual men, and no one else. This idea is even unintentionally reinforced in some activist spaces—actor Alyssa Milano’s sex strike, for example, was criticized for reinforcing sex as something solely benefitting cis men and only worth weaponizing for women.
We also continue to look at sex and sex education as something completely isolated from other issues—not just from pleasure, but from abortion access, sexual assault and interpersonal violence. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Comprehensive sex education is a reproductive justice issue. There is no way that young people—especially young people who are already marginalized—can make decisions about birth control; know the signs of an abusive relationship; decide if, when and how to become a parent; understand consent; or even enjoy a pleasurable sexual experience if they’re not provided with the medically accurate and shame-free sex education they need.
I’m a millennial woman of color who knows firsthand what it’s like to experience the abstinence-only models being pushed on students by conservative lawmakers and restrictive social policies, despite evidence that it isn’t effective. I was hungry for sex education that reaffirmed young people and all of their identities, destigmatized sex and empowered young people to make the best decisions for themselves and their lives.
It’s time for policymakers to recognize how urgent and important making that kind of classroom possible truly is.