Sexual education in the United States is often epitomized by certain tropes and over-told jokes: an awkward middle-aged gym teacher shoves a condom on a banana and lectures students about the dangers of sex; students snicker to cover up their discomfort and then go home and Google their questions. Sexual education programs like this are uncomfortable, uninformative, and unsuccessful in reaching students.
But to what degree are stereotypical depictions accurate? In a survey conducted by the Tufts Observer, students reflected on their experiences with sexual education in secondary school (middle and/or high school). Their responses varied. Some students reported that their sexual education programs were “woefully inadequate,” “shaming and uninformative,” and “minimal.” Others described their experiences as “very comprehensive and progressive” and said that they “felt well-informed.”
Positive sexual education experiences are important. If students are not taught about how to have safe sex that pertains to them, they are unable to make well-informed decisions. This has consequences, as teenagers in the US experience high rates of STIs, teen pregnancy, and abusive relationships. Advocates for Youth, an organization that works both in the US and internationally to support adolescent reproductive and sexual health, states on their website that “teens who received comprehensive sex education were 50 percent less likely to experience pregnancy than those who received abstinence-only education.”
If comprehensive sexual education matters, then why isn’t every student receiving it?
Sex is a fraught topic. There are endless viewpoints on who should have sex and why they should have it, and all of them are influenced by cultural, religious, and personal beliefs. This contentiousness coupled with the extremely personal nature of sex and bodies means that sex is uncomfortable to talk about, at the very least.
On a policy level, the difficulty of talking about sex means that sexual education is often left unaddressed. Nationwide, there is no law that regulates states’ sexual education policies. Only 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sexual education.19 of these require the education to be medically, factually, or technically accurate, which essentially allows sexual education curriculums in 31 states to either give false information or none at all.
Because there is no real standard for sexual education, students within one state may have vastly different experiences. One student from Massachusetts commented, “I feel like from a young age I received factual, science-based information about puberty and sex in a sex-positive way.” Another student from Massachusetts said, “We watched two videos about sex. Both ended with the girl dead.”
The idea behind sexual education is to teach students how to make good decisions about sex. But sexual education programs that present inaccurate or irrelevant information are useless at best and actively harmful at worst. “We were told that the rhythm method was more effective than condoms—worst misinformation I’ve ever heard handed to young teenagers,” commented one respondent. (The rhythm method is a method of family planning that involves tracking a woman’s ovulation cycle and then timing intercourse to provide the least risk of pregnancy. It does not protect against STIs and is not more effective than condoms.)
Furthermore, the quality of a sexual education program depends on both its content and the ways in which that content is taught. A student reported a positive experience because of “the level of detail and respect we got—the teachers were candid and treated us as semi-adult.” Conversely, students reported negative feelings about sexual education because of factors like the incompetency and/or identities of their instructors, who else was in the classroom with them, and a lack of anonymity when asking questions. “[Sex ed] class was always awkward,” said one respondent. “The teacher herself didn’t know much,” said another. “We had one day in which we could ask any questions and she literally sat there and Googled them with us.”
In addition to reporting discomfort, multiple students said they felt outright scared by the material. “The point of the course seemed to try to scare kids away from sex [and] make it more frightening,” said a student from Massachusetts. Another student noted, “I remember being very scared of having sex because it seemed like there were so many risks.”
These one-sided narratives both stem from and perpetuate fear. “I think there’s a lot of cultural fear around talking about sex in general, but certainly in talking about and acknowledging that young people are engaged in sex in different ways and…in younger ages than people want to assume,” said Ali Safran, founder of the nonprofit Surviving in Numbers, to the Tufts Observer. Surviving in Numbers provides space for sexual assault survivors to talk about their experiences and brings trainings about sexual violence to high schools in the Boston area.
She continued, “There’s fear coming from the people teaching about it [and] fear from the people who don’t know and want to learn, and…that plays into how anyone relates to sex.”
Sexual education programs in secondary school have lasting impacts on students, affecting how they relate to and operate within a college atmosphere. With such varied sexual education experiences, students are coming to Tufts with a multitude of backgrounds in both experiences and knowledge. At Tufts, many students are living away from home for the first time. A college campus provides a hookup culture and a steady discourse surrounding sex. Without the resources or background to navigate this environment, it can be hard for students to make good decisions pertaining to sex.
“People have such different experiences in their sex ed and there are such huge gaps in their knowledge. So many people are coming [to Tufts] without knowledge about their own bodies,” said sophomore Sara Newman. Newman is the co-president of Vox, the Planned Parenthood affiliate on campus that seeks to advance reproductive justice through education and activism. Newman said that Health Services has asked Vox to hold a joint forum or panel for basic sexual education because Health Services has seen such a large number of students who are not educated on sexual health.
Moreover, sexual education experiences are heavily informed by social identities such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Sexual education programs are often irrelevant, not culturally appropriate, or nonexistent.
Many students reported that their sexual education programs were heteronormative and adhered to the gender binary, framing sexual intercourse as solely consisting of vaginal penetration of a cisgender woman by a cisgender man. One queer-identifying survey respondent commented, “I learned nothing relevant to my own sex life.” Another said, “As a queer student I felt very isolated from a lot of the mainly heteronormative dialogues that took place in class. Had there been more focus on LGBTQIA+ health issues, I might have felt more comfortable and more engaged.”
The Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization that seeks to advance reproductive health, reported that eight states require sexual education programs to be “appropriate for a student’s cultural background and not be biased against any race, sex, or ethnicity.” This suggests that there is both a need for, and a lack of, culturally and identity appropriate sexual education. When sexual education is not relevant to already marginalized students, it further excludes and disadvantages them. Advocates for Youth notes that queer and trans youth and youth of color are disproportionately at risk for negative sexual health outcomes such as STIs (including HIV/AIDS) and unintended pregnancies, as well as harassment, homelessness, and abuse. For example, young queer black men acquire HIV at a rate of 16 percent, compared to 7 percent for young queer Latino men, and 3 percent for young queer white men. These sexual health disparities are rooted in structural barriers and systems of oppression and do not have a simple solution, but comprehensive sexual education is one way to address them.
While it is difficult to evaluate sexual health resources for people with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities because they are not always enrolled in mainstream schooling, it is important to note that they often do not receive sexual education either in school or at home.
Junior James Gordon and sophomore Kathy Nguyen are the co-chairs of Tufts Health Advocates (THA), a student group that addresses health needs on campus through advocacy, education, and policy changes. They told the Observer, “THA is interested [in thinking] about how raced and classed differentials in sexual education exposure translate onto the Tufts campus. We want to think critically about how the sex ed programming available on campus can then better accommodate students who are in different places in their learning, while being conscious of where those differences in experience come from.”
Addressing these knowledge gaps in nuanced, comprehensive, and non-judgmental ways is crucial. When students are uninformed about sex, coming to college can be confusing, isolating, and overwhelming. “If someone enters college with limited sexual health knowledge or experience, and they didn’t realize their school had a strong party/frat culture and a hookup culture, they may feel particularly unsure of how to navigate and feel comfortable in that context on campus,” said Safran.
Additionally, they may not feel included in campus dialogue about sex. Many campus conversations about sex occur around sex positivity and consent. While these are extremely important conversations, Newman emphasized that discourse needs to build off of a foundational base of knowledge about sex. She said, “[Sexual education and conversations about consent] really complement each other. It’s easier to understand yourself and to make choices that you feel comfortable with if you really understand your body and how your choices will affect your body. I think that consent has to be taught as part of sex ed, but that you need sex ed to truly have consent.” She also identified “an aspect of sex compulsivity to the hookup culture” that could put pressure on students who are not interested in having sex, particularly those who have never been taught that this is okay.
Gordon and Nguyen added, “There are a lot of really fantastic conversations happening on campus surrounding sex positivity, but we also need to think more critically about who is and isn’t included in those conversations and the role that sex education plays in that.”
With so many factors contributing to students’ sexual education experiences, what can make students’ sexual knowledge and experiences at Tufts more positive?
It is important to fill in students’ knowledge gaps. THA, Vox, and other student groups on campus are working to do so. This semester, THA is looking to assess sexual education needs on campus, emphasizing a critical perspective that considers the role of race and class in access to resources. While still forming detailed plans for the year, they are “thinking about how [they] might best create an intentional space in which students and speak openly about their experiences with sex education, both on campus and beyond.” Vox is planning its panel with Health Services and is constantly working to connect students to resources both on campus and off-campus. Additionally, they will be supporting Planned Parenthood’s Sex Ed Matters campaign, which is advocating for a comprehensive sexual education policy across Massachusetts. They will be collecting student signatures and stories in support of the bill. This campaign provides a structural solution that can help students in Massachusetts access good sexual education before they leave high school.
Ultimately, these efforts serve to open up dialogue about sexual health and improve people’s experiences with, and relationships to sex. Newman said, “Giving people the information and making people feel comfortable asking questions about sex will make the experience safer, the campus safer, and the atmosphere safer for everyone.”