Rethinking Sex Ed


Sitting uncomfortably in the hard plastic chairs, we watched our teacher write the names of diseases across the whiteboard. The sloppy, black scrawl of “Chlamydia” marred its pristine surface as he drilled home the purpose of his lesson: sex can defile you if you don’t protect yourself.

We learned about insidious viral sores that could never be cured. We learned about warts and cervical cancer, about gonorrhea and syphilis. We learned about HIV and AIDS, and dying along with every person we’d ever slept with (and every person that person had ever slept with, and on and on, forever).

One day a panel of girls from Fair View—the “bad kids” high school—were paraded in to tell their cautionary tales of teen pregnancy. One of them blushed bright red as she told us she had never even had sex; her boyfriend ejaculated outside of her once and those little sperms found their way in. Of course, that was all probably a lie to scare us straight, or maybe to salvage some scrap of her dignity.

We left that class knowing how to put a condom on a banana, armed with statistics about how the best protection (besides abstinence, but let’s be serious) combined condoms and birth control, and completely certain that the worst thing that could ever come from sex was to become physically polluted and socially debased. We made secret vows to ourselves about how we would never be one of those people, vows that many of us could never keep.

Missing from those lessons—at the most critical point in our lives for such knowledge—was any mention of how to build healthy relationships and recognize bad ones, of how to establish consent, or of how to handle it when the world of love and sex goes wrong.

These omissions are tied directly to the failure rates of sex education in preventing pregnancy and disease, and unfortunately the consequences reach even further. According to studies (cited by “Violent relationships in adolescence can have serious ramifications by putting the victims at higher risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior and further domestic violence. Being physically or sexually abused makes teen girls six times more likely to become pregnant and twice as likely to get a STI. Half of youth who have been victims of both dating violence and rape attempt suicide.”

On top of that, many people never escape that world, and their adult relationships are just as bad or worse. According to Professor Amy Bonomi, a lead researcher into teen dating violence: “Approximately one in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, and more than one-third of young adults who reported being victims of dating violence as teenagers had two or more abusive partners.” In some studies the numbers are even higher, depending on the behaviors included in the definition for the survey.

Studying all this has been a staggering experience. Everyone I knew in high school (including me) was conducting their relationships with some element of unhealthy, abusive behavior woven in. Name calling, yelling, temper tantrums, manipulations, harassment, coercion into sexual behaviors, separating their partners from their friends, controlling who they were allowed to talk to, destroying belongings, constantly checking up on their partners and making wild accusations…Whoever was on the giving or receiving end, we all thought this was acceptable, because it was normal.

But that’s the way an unguided animal with intense hormones will behave: wildly and aggressively. There has to be some instruction, some light shed on how to be healthy in the way we love. This whole-relationship education is easily just as important in protecting the minds of young people as condoms are for protecting their bodies.

If we really value our youth, these things need to be widely taught in order to undermine the abusive peer-culture that most teens currently look to when deeming what behavior is acceptable—and it has to begin at the age when intimate relationships are starting to form, which, these days, is in early adolescence.

Obviously there are tomes upon tomes of expert analysis on the subject of how to have healthy relationships and escape cycles of abuse, and if there can ever be an evolution of sex ed into something more holistic, of course the curriculum should draw from them. But for the sake of putting some hard-earned lessons out there for the young ‘uns in the meantime, I’d like to share some of my own experiences and what they taught me.

One of my first major adult relationships was a total mess. It started out OK, but just a few weeks in we were bickering. He was a little unreliable, a little impatient about spending time with my friends, and a little bit of a flirt with all the girls; all of which was more than a little frustrating. Usually he was very playful and affectionate though, and I felt like that good dynamic was the foundation of our future. I also didn’t really believe I could do better, because my prior relationships had all had similar problems.

Things escalated. We moved to San Francisco together. He started going out without telling me where; not coming home for days at a time. No explanations and no apologies, because I “wasn’t his mom.” Pretty soon the bickering turned into daily screaming matches. When we were walking down the street and he saw a pretty girl, he’d actually whistle and cat-call her. More and more, it seemed like he was trying to prove something to me about my place in the relationship. If he told me he was going to give me a ride to work and I skipped the bus, odds were he’d decide to make a stop along the way that made me late, or just change his mind and flake altogether. Once he even left me standing outside a warehouse party where I had performed, all alone at 2am in a skimpy dance costume—assuming I’d know he didn’t feel like driving after all, and that I’d find my own way home.

Walking those three miles through some of the worst neighborhoods in the city—tired, shivering and crying—my will finally broke. I thought about how I should’ve left him right at the start, but instead I had clung to what I had hoped it would turn into. I had fought for that imaginary relationship; tried to convince him he was being an asshole, and tried to berate him into changing. The idea of hearing my own voice in battle mode one more time made me feel sick. I ended it the next day. I do think he was an asshole, but I see now that I was too; we were in a struggle to control each other, and it was a miserable, mutually abusive relationship. Lesson: Fighting all the time means your relationship is terrible, and you can’t use anger to create happiness. Get out before you turn into a monster.

I decided at the beginning of my next major relationship that I didn’t want to fight anymore. I had met a guy who was mostly really nice, except that when things didn’t go his way he had a temper issue. I experimented with responding passively to the verbal outbursts, after all, they weren’t directed at me.

Things escalated. We moved in together. When he got angry over things like dishes being undone when I had a lot of sewing orders, or when he blamed my $5 lipstick purchase for not having enough money to pay a $50 phone bill, I would apologize and try to smooth things over. I would try to use all the “I feel” statements psychologists recommend, but he would respond with greater aggression, accusing me of trying to sound like I was above him or trying to manipulate him with tears, and I’d apologize.

We moved to a place way out in the middle of nowhere, hours from my friends and family, and his mood swings became my sun and moon. He made all of our major decisions, many of which were reckless and expensive. Still though, I was so proud of the fact that we never fought. I felt that I had grown so much, and that if I set a good example he would learn to handle his emotions the way I did. It didn’t sink in for years that he had successfully dominated me, and that my submissive posture was what he wanted so he could feel strong and secure.

The long stretches of harmony made me think we were the happy couple everyone thought we were, but then something stressful would come along and my world was all eggshells again. My strength faded so gradually that by the time I realized I was unhappy I felt almost too weak to leave. Lesson (that I should’ve learned the first time): What you see in the beginning is a seed of what will grow, and all outwardly directed behavior will eventually be aimed at you. Also, it takes two to make a thing go right (should’ve listened to Rob Base); whether you’re reacting aggressively or passively to a person who treats you wrong, it still equals a bad relationship.

One of the most important things I ever learned is that at the root of all anger there is fear. It can be of losing power or independence, of being cheated on or being abandoned…whatever it is, the fear is a part of that person from before you ever met them, and the way they choose to deal with it will permeate your world one way or another.

If you aren’t ready to take a step back and deal with your feelings objectively, you have no business in a relationship. Do work; take the time to look within and gain perspective on when your emotions originated, and on the power you’re allowing them to have over you. Hell, stick to casual flings for a while while you sort yourself out (wear a condom though, please).

Likewise, if a potential partner isn’t clearly someone who can be trusted to be faithful, treat others with respect, and behave in a respectable manner, it’s a good idea to get to know them before getting involved, or choose a more suitable partner. Ignore the fact that it’s a cliché, because it’s profoundly true: You can only change yourself, never another person.

All cautionary tales aside, love and sex can be the most positive thing in the whole world when it’s right. So what is it that makes a dynamic between two people healthy?

Well, to put it simply: it takes two people who understand themselves, who genuinely like and respect each other, and some really good chemistry.

If you understand yourself, why you feel the way you feel and make the choices you make, it’s easy to communicate your experience, and it’s easy to empathize when someone else shares theirs. This communication breeds trust and a sense of shared experience. If you genuinely like and respect someone, it’s easy to treat them well and give them the benefit of the doubt when something isn’t said or done just right. Your first instinct will be to clarify rather than jump to conclusions. You’ll find it easy to support them, and find ways to brighten their day. If you have really good chemistry, life is full of energy and excitement. It’s easy to make any moment spontaneous, and sex is awesome. Like, crazy awesome.

Final lesson: If being with this person makes you glow brighter and draws out a better you than ever before, you’re in a good relationship. If you feel diminished, afraid of their reactions, and isolated from the people who used to empower you, seek some help and perspective from your loved ones, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1(800) 799−7233, or Catalyst 1−800−799− SAFE(7233) to get connected with local services. There are tons of great online resources as well, however if you have reason to be afraid of your partner, please be sure they have no way to monitor your internet activity.

Anyway, happy Valentine’s Day, and happy Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month!


Further reading on the dynamics of unhealthy or abusive relationships:

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Managing Editor for Synthesis Weekly. Amy likes to make clothes, plant flowers, and chase butterflies.