My School Refused To Teach Us About Sex. Then I Was Sexually Assaulted.

"At 16, a teacher asked me to add two extra stitches to the front of my formal dress so I wouldn’t expose too much cleavage."
The author around the time she was assaulted.
The author around the time she was assaulted.
Courtesy of Emily Anderson

Two weeks before my 19th birthday, I woke up not sure if I had been sexually assaulted.

I was sure the creeping feeling under my skin was shame. I was sure the abrasions on my intimate skin hurt. I was sure I needed to shower.

I didn’t want to see myself and the red marks he left behind, so I turned away from the bathroom mirror, slipped out of my pajamas, put on my bikini and stepped underneath the water.

I repeated this ritual for nearly a week: undress without looking, slip on a swimsuit, shower partially clothed. I didn’t want to be alone with my body. I needed the evidence of my nightmare to dissolve.

The small Christian school I attended from fourth grade to 12th grade failed to equip me for this moment. In the wake of my sexual assault, my abstinence-only sex education only amplified my shame and confusion.

I use the words “sex education” loosely. My high school offered no formal curriculum regarding sex. Instead, I received occasional advice on sexual propriety and a list of acceptable hugs (the “A-frame” and side hug, not the full-frontal).

A Bible teacher once told my class she didn’t kiss her boyfriend using her tongue. She warned us French kissing would feed sexual temptation until we were hurtling toward the deed itself, destined for failure and perhaps hell itself.

She also advised us to avoid hormonal birth control.

“It scrapes your insides out,” I remember her saying. I envisioned my uterus as a pumpkin on Halloween, with the seeds scooped out and little nicks from the spoon on the fleshy interior.

My teacher recommended we instead take our temperatures to track ovulation (once we got married, of course) and avoid permanent damage.

Curious and a little embarrassed, I asked my mom about the temperature method after school.

“You know what we call the people who use that?” she said with a laugh. “Parents.”

“Our teachers assumed we would, as they advised, remain chaste until marriage ― when all pregnancies would be wanted and there would be no infections to transmit between partners.”

These lectures were somewhat commonplace and often veiled in religious jargon. When I was 15, I learned chlamydia was serious business, as was “the gift” (my school’s oddly cultish word for sex). At 16, a teacher asked me to add two extra stitches to the front of my formal dress so I wouldn’t expose too much cleavage. At 17, my female classmates and I learned which swimsuits to wear (one-pieces) and about the dangers of midriffs (male temptation).

But I never witnessed a teacher roll a condom down a cucumber or learned what the word “orgasm” meant or learned anything useful about sex or sexuality in any of my classes.

Our teachers assumed we would, as they advised, remain chaste until marriage ― when all pregnancies would be wanted and there would be no infections to transmit between partners.

At home, my parents would answer direct questions about birth control and sexually transmitted infections but subtly enforced the same purity-based messages I heard in the classroom. They warned me not to be like some of their friends who were trapped in an unhappy marriage because a one-night stand resulted in pregnancy. And they never had “the talk” with me, perhaps because they assumed my ninth-grade health class taught me everything I needed to know (it definitely did not).

My education inside the classroom and what I learned outside of it ― mostly from “How I Met Your Mother” ― never included discussions about sexual assault and the parameters of consent.

When I got to college, I began to learn more, courtesy of the other freshmen at my public university, who were much more open about sex than my high school peers. My new friends talked about sex positions and IUDs and being queer. They talked about “yes means yes” and STI testing. Professors even encouraged us to discuss the intersections between power and sex in the classroom.

But I still believed what I had been taught as a child: My body was worth far more untouched. And I was overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know. It seemed too late for me to learn even the basics. How did you put a condom on a cucumber? What did it mean to say yes? What did it mean to say no?

Studies have repeatedly shown that abstinence-only sex education is ineffective. One study found that 88% of people who took an abstinence pledge still had sex before marriage, and those individuals were less likely to get tested for STIs. Despite this data, five states still mandate abstinence-only education. Less than half of the states in this country require students to learn about asserting sexual boundaries and only 11 require students to learn about the importance of consent.

By overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has placed an extra burden on American adolescents. Not only will teens in abstinence-only states not have extensive knowledge of contraception and consent, but they will also have access to fewer reproductive resources once they become sexually active.

And these teens, like me, may suffer because of it.

The author one year after her assault. "I still felt very uncomfortable with my body at this time," she writes.
The author one year after her assault. "I still felt very uncomfortable with my body at this time," she writes.
Courtesy of Emily Anderson

The night of my assault, my assailant and I stumbled out of a car after midnight ― loud and confused and barely upright ― and knocked on my friend’s door. I told her privately what had happened just half an hour before.

“Don’t go telling people this was rape,” she warned. “Because I know you.”

I nodded. But on the drive home I couldn’t stop wondering what secret my friend knew about me. Was she implying I was addicted to drama, desperate to twist an innocent situation into something sinister? Did she think I wanted it? Did she think I was sober enough to know what wanting it meant?

My already unsteady definition of consent couldn’t bear this scrutiny.

I couldn’t move because I was so drunk. But he must’ve been drunk, too. I did not say yes, but he never asked in the first place. I said no, but only once.

My disconnected ideas about rape ― the whispers about it in high school, the third-hand descriptions in college ― couldn’t categorize this violation.

The next morning, showering in my bikini, I hated myself. I hated that I held his hand in the back of the car after he’d done what he’d done. I hated that I had too much to drink. I hated that I drank at all.

According to the standard of purity culture, I had failed. I had experienced much more than a full-frontal hug or someone’s tongue in my mouth. And if I was so broken and wicked that I drank liquor when I was underage and wore too-short shorts, I reasoned I was broken enough to want what happened to me.

I believed my friend. It must have been my fault.

And what now? Could I still claim the virginity I was taught to value above all else? Could I ever enjoy sex with the compound barriers of womanhood and the weight of sexual trauma?

Too late in life I wrestled with these questions. I approached them not to prepare myself for a hypothetical but to survive the unraveling of my self-worth. I wish I had known at 13, at 15, at 18 what I know now.

A month after the incident, I told my mom what happened. She didn’t press me for details, but she openly worried that I would never get married or would isolate myself from my friends.

Then she helped me find a therapist.

“I wish I had known at 13, at 15, at 18 what I know now.”

It took me years to untangle my self-worth from my purity (or lack of it) and embrace my own definitions of intimacy.

I learned that I was assaulted. I didn’t say yes. I couldn’t stand up. I didn’t want to be there. That wasn’t consent.

I learned many of my friends had survived assault, too.

I also learned to be OK with my body and discover my worth beyond it. I learned to trust my gut ― if I felt violated, I probably was ― and to find friends who trusted me, too.

But these were lessons learned in privilege. I am straight and white with a supportive family and money for therapy. I took classes at a high-ranking university where I could analyze my experiences in academic safety. Too many people do not have access to these resources or basic networks of support.

As we send teenagers, especially young women, into a post-Roe world, we need to provide them with knowledge. They need to know they are more than bodies, but also that their bodies are not their enemies. They need to know how to define consent and what healthy, reliable birth control looks like. They need to be able to identify harmful attitudes and avoid or change them so they can move forward with fresh respect for themselves and others.

I don’t want other young people to endure my hell. I don’t want them to shower in a swimsuit because they can’t bear to see the red marks left by unwanted hands. I want them to have confidence in their experiences, and I want them to know they are worthy of validation. I want them to understand that consent is mandatory and can be revoked at any time for any reason.

Of course, people who have had sex education are also assaulted. Knowledge isn’t a guarantee that unthinkable things won’t happen. And even in states where sex education is required, it can and should be better than it currently is. But the more we’re taught, the more we know, and the less we sidestep talking about these issues in open and honest ways, the better off we will be.

Let’s not force teens to face sex and all its complications with only blind optimism and questionable science. I wish I had more to guide me at 18.

Emily Anderson is a coffee-obsessed digital storyteller based on the West Coast. She explores her interests in gender, faith and grief as a historian, social media manager, poet and essayist.

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