My memory of sex ed goes a little something like this: teachers separated the girls and boys (because, you know, cooties) to teach each respective sex about puberty and what we should expect. My teacher discussed all the things pre-pubescent girls are dying to know…like how to wash your face and what soap to use. And if that wasn’t comprehensive enough, she even passed around a tampon or two and assured us that bleeding out of your vagina is totally normal…phew. I can’t say for sure, but if the lesson for the boys was anything like ours, I can only imagine they were learning about the ins and outs of hiding boners, growing body hair, and sufficiently coating themselves in axe body spray.
Perhaps my experience isn’t the norm, but it certainly isn’t the exception. The United States’ education system severely glosses over the details of reproductive anatomy and physiology…especially those details pertaining to the female reproductive system. The male reproductive system, overall, is far simpler and easier to explain than its female counterpart, and most people understand how it works without extensive instruction. Naturally-cycling, biological women, on the other hand, have bodies that are inherently more complex – with menstruation, cervical secretions, varying degrees of fertility on any given day, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and all of the associated hormonal fluctuations – but our system tends to cram all of the male and female information into the same time-frame. Biological men do experience hormonal fluctuations that should be taught, but, generally speaking, men are equipped with a perpetually loaded gun. Simple enough. But the current state of sex ed in the US is essentially saying to young women, “Your gun is only loaded about a quarter of the time, but we’re not going to teach you how to figure out when that is.”
While this oh-so-basic curriculum is hurting both men and women, women tend to bear the brunt of the disadvantages. We end up providing young women with only the most basic details about their complex bodies (e.g. girls have a period so someday they can have a baby), and we’re left feeling as though our bodies are completely mysterious and unreliable.
But this idea that the female body can’t be trusted is, for the most part, utter crap. Overall, nature tends toward organization and order: the same patterns and shapes appear over and over, symmetry is everywhere, and cycles govern nature (the life cycle, circadian rhythms, planetary orbits, the water cycle, seasons, etc.). The menstrual cycle is no different. Female bodies aren’t the hot mess we’ve been taught to expect, and order can typically be found even in the most irregular cycles when we learn about how our bodies work.
Crappy sex ed ultimately hurts family planning, encompassing both pregnancy prevention and achievement. So how does it affect women who don’t want to get pregnant? For starters, not trusting your body makes contraception choices seem pretty narrow, especially when every sexual encounter with someone of the opposite sex is made to feel like russian roulette. Many women are fear mongered into using contraceptive methods that may not be a good fit for their unique lifestyles, all because sex ed instills in us a sense of distrust for our bodies. We’re taught that hormonal methods and IUDs are the only truly effective, reversible ways to prevent pregnancy, but that’s only because we’re not taught enough about our bodies to properly use other methods (like fertility awareness-based methods, for instance). But women are increasingly using methods like fertility awareness and withdrawal. This isn’t a bad thing if women are properly educated about their bodies and how to use these methods, but most aren’t. So methods like fertility awareness get a pretty bad rap because a majority of people don’t understand the science behind how they work.
Elemental sex ed also means that many women don’t properly use contraceptive methods and, additionally, can’t quantify the risks that may be encountered as a result. If a condom breaks, a woman who is educated about how her body works will know whether or not the circumstance truly requires the use of emergency contraception. Further still, an informed young woman may take extra precautions (or abstain) when she knows she’s at risk of pregnancy.
And what about women who are looking to get pregnant? Thanks to shoddy sex ed, many women don’t know they have a reproductive disorder until they are trying to conceive, and many of these disorders can make it difficult to get pregnant. This (understandably) leads to a lot of stress during an already stressful time. Knowing about a menstrual disorder from a young age would help better prepare a woman for these things, and since many of these issues can be controlled with lifestyle changes, it would allow her to take steps early on. Don’t get me wrong, here. Being educated about our bodies unfortunately won’t prevent all women from struggling with infertility. It would, however, help a woman better understand why she’s struggling to get pregnant and allow her to make more informed choices about treatment options.
Truly comprehensive sex education provides young people with a deep sense of autonomy and control. Family planning isn’t one-size-fits-all, so we must begin to formulate sex education curriculums in such a way that young people are armed with the information necessary to make the best decisions for their unique lifestyle. Skimming vital details and creating a distrust of our bodies is not the answer, friends, and we are doing young people a disservice by not actively demanding change.