‘In My Perfect World, This Is What Sex Ed Looks Like’
We asked Dr. Christin Bowman, a sex educator and expert in adolescent sexuality, to describe her ideal sex ed curriculum.
There is currently no standardized curriculum for sexual education in the United States. Depending on local politics in the school district, students may receive abstinence-only education, they may get very up-to-date materials that take consent and gender identity into account, or they may be exposed to anything beyond or in-between. They may even receive zero sexual education, because most states still do not require that it be taught in schools.
There is concrete data that shows that abstinence-only sex ed is ineffective, as it fails to reduce teen pregnancy or STI transmissions. But today’s highly polarized political climate doesn’t offer the most promising outlook for the future of comprehensive, inclusive, and standardized sex ed.
However, it’s still important to map out what a positive future could look like. The following is an interview excerpt between WAXOH! editor Emily Lowinger and Dr. Christin Bowman.
Emily: If you could create a perfect world where there was standardized sex ed, what would you want included in the curriculum?
Dr. Bowman: Well, I think we would obviously need the basics. Sex ed programs often start with reproduction. I think that’s important to include but that’s very, very baseline. The curriculum should teach healthy sex, both in terms of physical health and emotional health.
From my experience as a sex educator, kids have questions about the ins and outs of sex, like the physical stuff. They have questions about STI’s and pregnancy, too. But they tend to have a lot of questions about the more emotional and relational sides of sex, and I think it would be really great to spend a lot of time focusing on healthy relationships: talking about communication, trust, consent, and pleasure.
Pleasure is a big one.
We often completely forget about pleasure when we teach sex ed, and it’s kind of the reason why most people have sex, right? Most people don’t have sex to have babies. Most people have sex to enjoy it, to have fun, and to have pleasure. So, I think pleasure should be a big part of the conversation.
Masturbation should also be a big part of the conversation in sex ed because a lot of times kids are ready to learn about their bodies before they’re ready to have sex with someone else. You can explore your own body, look at yourself in the mirror – for women especially, since it’s so hard to see our own genitals, as opposed to men. Masturbation and self-exploration teaches us about what we look like, what we feel like, and what we enjoy in terms of being touched – what feels good to us. Masturbation is a really, really important topic to include in sex ed and it’s usually not.
And then we also need to include some media literacy. Sex is so prominent in the media. There are messages about sex, sexuality, and gender out there, and everyone is bombarded with this information, including kids.
We need to teach kids how to consume media and how to be critical of the messages that they’re getting: how to look at an advertisement that’s sexualizing a woman’s body and recognize that – to see what the advertiser is trying to do and how they’re using this sexualized body to sell a product and what that means.
I’ve only seen a few curricula that include a media literacy component, but if I were designing my own dream curriculum, I would definitely include it.
Emily: What was your own experience with sex ed like?
Dr. Bowman: That’s a great question. I don’t really remember it very well because it was my ninth-grade health class. We did have sex ed in fourth grade that was mostly periods and tampons and penis-in-vagina reproduction stuff. Then I believe we had a seventh-grade reproduction unit that was just eggs and sperm and how babies are made.
But in ninth grade we had a health class too and all I remember from it is that the gym teacher was teaching it. He did not want to be teaching it. It was probably only for one day, and he was probably just looking in a book he was given. I don’t remember there being anything substantive or helpful at all.
My high school did create one day of programming for seniors that was about STIs and pregnancy and that kind of stuff. I think I missed school that day for some reason, so I didn’t actually go. I remember thinking that it was crazy that it was just for seniors!
The CDC published “19 Critical Sexual Education Topics” in 2016, which includes many of the items Dr. Bowman described. “Communication and negotiation skills” is the first item on the list, with “How to create and sustain healthy and respectful relationships” at number three. The list does include the benefits of being sexually abstinent, but it also includes “Influences of family, peer, media, technology, and other factors on sexually risky behavior.” Six of the 19 topics are dedicated to condoms: their importance, how to use them, where to get them, etc. There are three topics dedicated to the transmission and prevention of STIs, with HIV being specifically mentioned. The final two topics concern sexual orientation, gender roles, gender identity, and gender expression.
Notably, there is no mention of the word “pleasure” in the CDC’s list, and the word consent isn’t in there either (although perhaps it’s meant to be implied under “communication and negotiation”). There is also no mention of masturbation. Still, it’s hard to look at this list and not feel at a loss when considering the disparity between outlines on paper and the realities students across the country experience.
There is no standardized curriculum in the U.S. period – for any subject. Still, there exist certain standards that are supposed to be upheld. All students are expected to be taught to read, for example. Will we ever get to a place where a comprehensive, practical knowledge of human sexuality is considered as fundamental to our wellbeing and success as literacy? Or will kids always be at the mercy of bipartisan politics, sex-negativity, and religious extremism?
Lots to think about. In the meantime, stay positive!