In 5th grade they took us into two separate classrooms. Boys in one. Girls in the other.
As if the knowledge they’d impart was a secret.
As if gender was binary.
They handed us bags full of pink. Tiny floral scented sticks, called deodorant. Long rods outfitted with blades to make our bodies beautiful. And information about the support our breasts would need as they grew.
And we thought that was it. We knew it all. Health education had done its job.
One swipe of of deodorant, one lesson from my big sister about shaving my nearly hairless legs, and one trip to Limited Too for a lacy white and pink bra I clearly didn’t need...and I was set. I had successfully navigated puberty. I knew my body, and what I was supposed to do with it.
Or so I thought.
In 8th grade they let the boys and girls sit together in the same room. There was obviously no mention of trans or non-binary folks, especially in a middle school where “cross-dressing” led to suspension.
We listened to “How To Save a Life” and learned about suicide. But no one ever really talked to us about mental health. They just read off a list of facts. They never told me what to do when my body shut down, my eyes spotted black and blurry, and my breathing abandoned me. I just knew I was supposed to call a hotline or something.
We discussed drugs and how to avoid them. But no one ever talked to us about what do when your big sister trades teaching you to shave your legs, for a needle filled with poison.
But at the time, sitting in a class surrounded by peers, I knew for sure this was time: this was it. I knew everything there was to know about my body.
But, in 10th grade, we sat in the health class again. Except this time the topic of discussion was not new to us. We had all been whispering about it for years. Clumsily pressing our bodies against one another, lips locking, heads spinning. And now, it was time to talk about it.
And so we did.
We talked about pregnancy…
And learned how to put condoms on bananas.
We learned that safe sex meant: don’t get pregnant, don’t touch a penis without a condom, or you’ll get an STD and ruin your life.
And that was it; we had learned it all. We were exhilarated and terrified all at the same time.
So, when I had sex for the first time I got on the birth control pill, and we used a barrier method. We were 16 and regardless of if we were ready, it was “safe.”
When I was sexually assaulted for the first time in my adulthood I didn’t see anything wrong with it, because he used a condom, so that was “safe” too.
When sex was nothing short of excruciatingly painful, when the yeast infections kept coming because of all the synthetic hormones I swallowed. When my boyfriends begged me to keep going anyway, and blamed me for the pain, I took the anti-fungals and pushed through it. Because that was the point of sex wasn’t it? Pleasure. For the person you thought you loved anyway.
All of this was okay, because we never talked about:
Queer Sex — there was never any mention of sex between myself and another woman
Trans rights — or any discussion of gender being a social construct
Consent — we were not taught about consent at all, nor did we ever come close to understanding that consent is given moment to moment, and something that might be okay in one instance, is not okay in the next
How Not To Rape — another word we never saw, heard, or even imagined. Rape was left out of discussion all together. We knew rape was bad. We were never taught how not to rape.
Body exploration — we were never encouraged to grab a mirror and explore our anatomy, fall in love with our folds, curves, or clitorises.
Self pleasure — and masturbation was known only as something boys did in front of computer screens
Sex for pleasure — sex was either meant to make babies, or show love, (or get you a million deadly diseases). We were never taught that sex was supposed to feel miraculously good for ALL parties involved.
Our connection with our bodies is shaped during our youth. And for the past two years I have been working to undo many of the lessons I learned in my health and sexual education classes.
Sure, I thankfully wasn’t taught the abstinence method as my only option.
Absolutely, I had access to free condoms and birth control from the teen clinic.
Deodorant, razors and Victoria Secret Bras were readily available to me, so I could fit in.
But what did all that do for me?
Well, I’ll tell you…
I spent my teenage years terrified of HIV. Until this day it is one of my biggest fears. The scare tactics in my health class were so overwhelming that even after I had been tested for STD’s at Planned Parenthood I would imagine all the ways the tests could be wrong, all the ways I might be ruining my life.
I spent my early college years holding out my tongue in front of a mirror to ensure my tiny birth control pills went down my throat. I was so paranoid, I would wake up in the middle of the night and run to my pill pack and count the days backward, to be absolutely sure I was on track.
I spent years fighting chronic yeast infections, refusing to switch birth control methods, because my body was far less important than my partners’ disdains for condoms. His pleasure > mine. Because I was never taught that mine mattered.
I spent years having painful sex, not truly knowing what pleasure was, thinking that was as good as it got. Hating my body for not being better at whatever it was supposed to do.
I spent years wondering why the orgasms I gave myself were infinitely better than those I had with partners.
I spent too many years making excuses for the men who forced themselves inside of me, long before I was ready. Because it really wasn’t rape, it really wasn’t assault, not like I saw on the news (after all, that was the only frame of reference I had. Rape, assault and consent were never discussed in my education).
Now, as I enter my mid twenties, as I step into a year focused so largely on pleasure, body care, and sexual healing I am sure of a few things:
My pleasure is absolutely important
Communication before, during and after sex is essential
Consent before, during and at absolutely every stage is essential
“No” means “no”
Any pain I feel, means “no”
Any pressure from my partner, means “no”
Any resistance in my body, means “no”
The pain my body exudes is not my fault, it’s telling me a story and I should listen
I can have pain free sex, it happens to take trust, communication, consent and time (and sometimes great lube)
Pink razors and aluminum deodorant are not for me
Bras aren’t either
Sex isn’t just about fear, (STD’s and pregnancy are real, but they shouldn’t dictate my view of sex)
The orgasms you give yourself are fantastic, but the ones partners give you should be amazing too
Panic attacks are less frequent when you disengage from the fear tactics of your youth
Mental health is elevated by more pleasure and more self love
But the lessons I know to be true now, never even occurred to me as a teenager.
Our health education system was flawed 10 years ago.
I spoke with a kid from Australia in a hostel in Belgium last week. He just graduated high school and he spoke about their sexual education classes in Australia. He detailed how they spent as much time on consent (maybe more), than they spent on condoms and STDs. He talked about how to listen when a partner says no, or when their body says no. He talked about consent changing moment to moment, and I felt hope.
Perhaps the sexual education I received 10+ years ago is in fact outdated. Perhaps teachers are starting to fill in the gaps and talk about pleasure, consent, queer relationships, non-binary bodies and self-love. Perhaps.
But ya’ll, my hunch is, the overwhelming majority of health classes in the US are still lacking. Hell, this blog post is lacking. I know I’m forgetting important pieces of my experience. I’m definitely missing huge chunks of other folks experiences. So, that’s why I need your help.
I want to hear about your health and sexual education.
I want to hear about what your education was lacking, or what it was abundant in.
I want to hear about how your education impacted your connection with your body, radical self-love and pleasure.
I want to hear about the places you’ve learned the most, that have helped you connect with your body or unlearn the lessons that damaged you.
Comment or message me, let’s start the discussion and bring light to the lacking areas in our sexual education system.
For now, here’s to more orgasms and more education!