It's back-to-school season, and that means sex education classes are back in session. We asked our readers to share some of their experiences of sex ed on social media - and we received over 50 responses. 

A lot of answers pointed to the fact that there's a serious need to rethink sex education in the United States. From Catholic schools to public schools, readers reported that the education they received about their bodies, reproductive systems, and feelings was underwhelming, to say the least.

Here are five themes that summarize their experiences, plus a message that we hope can help counteract a disappointing or harmful experience with sex ed.

1. The message received: Bodies are shameful.

Readers said that, instead of making them feel empowered with knowledge about their bodies, the changes they would undergo during puberty, or a greater understanding of their reproductive systems, too often sex ed made them feel ashamed of these changes and left them with a sense that they weren't supposed to talk about their bodies. One reader pointed out that they only learned about the anatomy that "you can see. There was no information on hormones or their fluctuations, ovulation," or the intricate systems of the body that contribute to sex drives, sexual pleasure, or getting pregnant.

2. Too many gimmicks, not enough substance.

One reader said that her high school passed out "virginity cards" that looked like fake credit cards, the messaging being, "Use it once, and you'll be ruined forever." Other readers talked about having to care for flour sack “babies” as an assignment for health class. Some teachers attached tape to students and then had other students peel it off, explaining how something used was dirty and harder to stick onto the next student.

Several readers said that there wasn't enough real discussion, just euphemisms. One reader recalled her 60-year-old health teacher telling the class with a wink, "Ladies, you can let him take you out to dinner, but you don't have to give him dessert."

Concerns like these highlighted a desire for clear, substantive information, rather than a class that often confused and shamed more than it instructed or helped.

3. The subtext: “Want the real dish? Get porn.”

Multiple readers expressed frustration with their classes for not teaching them about anatomy, female sex drive, or sexual stimulation. Many of them said that they learned about sex from internet searches, explicit books or movies, or watching porn.

One reader said that she read stories of sex in the Bible to try to understand what was going on. Another reader said that, although she learned about the sexual reproductive organs and prenatal development during pregnancy, she didn't learn what sex was until her friend was playing a game on her phone in which a condom had to collect sperm. 

4. Male anatomy is privileged over female anatomy.

One reader said that, in her high school, she learned about male anatomy, but not female anatomy. Even when female anatomy was addressed, readers often reported it being discussed in a surface-level way. "I was told you'll have a period, but not anything about fertility or how periods play into your fertility cycle," wrote another reader. 

A third reader said that, although they watched a video about childbirth, they weren't taught anything about female anatomy itself.

5. A hyperfocus on consequences, instead of on dignity.

Instead of teaching them how their bodies work, said one reader, they simply learned how to control them.

"The strongest takeaway was that the right thing to do was not to have sex," wrote another, "but the switch from ‘off-limits’ to ‘greatest marital gift’ overnight was the hardest switch to flip."

Readers emphasized that being told sex was only for marriage often didn't help answer the key question of a pre-pubescent student: What is sex and what does it mean? One reader said that she thought she could get pregnant if she just spooned or cuddled with a boy.

One reader pointed out that the focus on reproduction and having a baby overshadowed the unitive aspects of sex in their education and the fact that sex was supposed to be pleasurable. And no one told them that sexual desire was part of being human. "No one told us sexual feelings were natural," she wrote.

Another reader said that she was taught to be so afraid of sexual desire that she worried about "lusting" after her husband when she wanted to have sex with him.

Rethinking Sex Education

After hearing their responses, I wanted to know what message could counteract these negative themes that are all too common in sex education. So, I asked Elizabeth Antus, an assistant professor at Boston College who researches theology, spirituality, sexuality, and mental health. 

She believes that sex education in public schools and Catholic schools has the ability to teach young women more about their innate dignity than it currently does. Antus said that, besides anatomical and other scientific knowledge, the most important spiritual or anthropological message that sex education should teach young women is this: "Your bodies are not gross: they're beautiful. Your capacity for pleasure is good. And you don't just exist to please somebody else."

Let’s hope, work, and pray for better sex education that sends a good and more complete message about our bodies and sexuality.

Renée Roden

Editor of Special Projects, 2021-present

Renée Darline Roden holds a B.A. and M.T.S. in theology from the University of Notre Dame and an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University. She is the executive director of Catholic Artist Connection and a freelance writer and playwright. Her plays have appeared at The Tank and the Bushwick Starr in New York City and at universities in Dallas and South Bend. Her writing has appeared in the Associated Press, Washington Post, Religion News Service, The Tablet, and America Magazine. She lives at St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Chicago.

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