Last week, New York required sex education for grades 6 or 7, and then again in grades 9 or 10. Astoundingly, this is news, and not just news but groundbreaking news, because somehow, regardless of everything we know about sex education, regardless of everything we know about how little abstinence education works, we still shudder at the thought of our teenagers learning about sex. We also still have one out of every four girls 14-19 infected with an STD. We still have one in two black girls that age with a STD. We still have 750,000 teenage pregnancies reported every year, 82% of them unplanned. And, we still have innumerable amounts of girls who don't know how to feel about sex at all, who still get shamed for their sexual desire, who wind up having sex when they didn't really want to, or don't have sex when they'd really like to.
So, while I applaud New York, which is doing the right thing based on all the statistics (and plain old common sense), more than that I have some suggestions for the sex ed teachers, since they're going to be barraged by angry, Puritan, head-in-the-sand antagonists anyway, to include in the curriculum.*
1. Talk about desire
How would you answer this question from your daughter: "How will I know when I'm ready to have sex?" The answer is, of course, individual to each girl, but very few mothers, educators, and therapists think to include some attention to a girl's sexual desire as part of their answer. The bottom line about girls and healthy sexuality is that this must be part of how we talk to girls about sex. Usually, we hand down to them the same useless, often harmful myths. We tell them that sex will get in the way of their happiness and growth. We tell them they must be in love. We tell them that good sex happens only when you are in love. None of those aphorisms is true -- not one. Sex and sexual feelings are essential to our happiness. Sex does not make sense only when you are in love. And sex with someone you aren't in love with can be just as good as sex with someone you do love. Add desire -- the acknowledgment that girls have sexual desire -- into the answer, and everything can change. Everything becomes more -- true.
For one, we can encourage girls to learn to trust their bodies and what their bodies' tell them. We can also tell them that just because they want it sexually doesn't mean it will be worth it or any good. We can tell them that sex with someone who wants you to enjoy yourself is a hundred times better than sex with someone who doesn't care about your experience, and sex with someone you love and who cares about your experience might be even better.
2. Talk about Outercourse
Another assumption we make as a culture is that to fulfill sexual feelings, people must have intercourse. This is absolutely untrue. Sex therapists use the term outercourse to describe the numerous acts that create sensual and sexual pleasure but do not include penetration. Think hand jobs. Think second and third base. Think phone sex. For teens who are experiencing that hormone rush but aren't ready to expose themselves to possible pregnancies and STDs, outercourse is perfect.
More than that, outercourse allows a teenager to explore and test intimacy, which is essential for building the self-confidence girls need to be both powerful and self-protected in the world of relationships. One sex therapist notes that communication is enhanced during outercourse. Because the sexual sensations can be less intense, there is more opportunity for closeness, for talking, and for full consent from both parties. And, let's face it, the likelihood of a girl having an orgasm via outercourse is much better than during intercourse. Boys, too, benefit. Boys receive plenty of cultural pressure to have as much sex as they can, even when they aren't ready to do so emotionally, so outercourse is a more gentle introduction into the world of sexual feelings and intimacy. In case I need to clarify, I believe it makes sense to include outercourse in sex education.
3. Talk about Masturbation
It also makes sense to include masturbation in a sex-education curriculum as a healthy, satisfying way to fulfill sexual desire, especially since a greater proportion of girls between fourteen and seventeen years old report solo masturbation than any other sexual activity. Adolescents have sexual desire. More so, they are in the process of learning about their sexual desire. What better way for adolescents to learn than to explore on their own? Likewise, what better way to help them explore their sexual desire without putting themselves at risk for STDs, pregnancy, and all the emotional ramifications of sex with other people? I'm not the surgeon general and won't get asked to resign for saying so. But conservatives would be outraged. Why? Because they are stuck in the old, rigid ways of thinking about teenagers -- particularly teenage girls -- and of believing that any teenage sex is inexplicably, unfoundedly immoral. They are determined to hold on to their beloved abstinence education, which has done not one thing for the state of sexual behavior in our culture, except encourage extremely detrimental shame.
4. Talk about Emotions
In our cultural landscape, sex and sexual feelings are too often removed from emotions, and yet for most people, they are intricately entwined. When we don't talk about the ways teenagers might feel about having sex or sexual activity, we ignore an essential part of sex education, one that can make all the difference when kids decide to engage in those activities. They need to examine their expectations about sexual activity -- what they hope for when they engage in this way. Such a discussion also provides space for teens to discuss how peers and their parents receive their behaviors and whether they are prepared for the repercussions of various sexual acts.
* This list is taken from my forthcoming book Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity (Sourcebooks, September 1, 2011)