Let’s talk about sex
The United States is very weird about sexuality. On one hand, we are presented with a plethora of overtly sexual—nearly pornographic—images and themes in the media, but at the same time were taught puritanical ideals about the horrors of sex.
Most sexual education in the United States is abstinence-only or abstinence-based. Both these models operate with the goal of scaring young people away from sex for as long as possible, although the latter does more readily acknowledge that sex does and will continue to happen. Some of the U.S. sexual education courses focus on the practical realities of sex, birth control and puberty, but the ultimate goal often seems to be avoiding the notion that sex can be a positive and enjoyable experience in favor of scaring young people away from sex and relationships altogether.
In Nevada, public school students are offered the abstinence-based Sexuality, Health and Responsibility Education classes starting in elementary school. In Washoe County, S.H.A.R.E. is taught to students each year from fourth through eighth grade, and it is again offered as part of the high school health curriculum. Other Nevada counties, however, do not have such an extensive program—in Clark County, sexual education is taught only in fifth and eighth grades, and in high school health classes. And while S.H.A.R.E. was once a program that brought highly trained experts in from the community to speak with students, recent budget constraints have made this difficult, and the sexual health segment of class is now generally taught by students’ regular teachers.
In Washoe County schools, I took my first sexual health lessons in fourth grade and my last in 12th. During this time, my peers and I were inundated with and terrified by the idea that sex will more often than not lead to horrible disease, life-altering pregnancy and the ultimate ruin of our lives, although this is not the aim of sexual education, according to S.H.A.R.E. program coordinator Katherine Loudon.
“The thing that’s different about sex education than other things is that there’s no such thing as healthy substance abuse or healthy violence, but there is such a thing as growing up and having healthy sexual relationships with people and being an adult that engages in sexual behavior,” Loudon said. “We don’t want to scare them or frighten them or make them think somehow that their bodies or sex is a bad thing. We want them to understand how their body works and the functions of their body and how to keep their body healthy and safe.”
At Reno High School, Monica Spalka taught the health class in which I last experienced the S.H.A.R.E. program. Her semester long course spends about one week on sexual health and another on healthy relationship building, including relationships between friends, family and lovers.
“My focus during S.H.A.R.E. is the biology of the birth of a child, pregnancy and then all of those choices—STDs, birth control choices,” Spalka said. “S.H.A.R.E. is a pretty abstinence-based program. It’s just teaching kids how to make good choices. … I think that we would prefer that they’re not sexually active due to all the side-effects that go with that—the emotional, the responsibility—but there are going to always be those children that choose to do that, so the second piece is teaching the good, healthy choices—what the options are.”
To this day, these lessons we were taught permeate our attitudes about sex and dating. Even in the most sex-positive environments I have encountered, sexually transmitted infections are rarely spoken about, and topics like female sexual pleasure, pornography, abortion and casual sex are still too touchy for many to address.
For whatever reason, some adults are obviously uncomfortable dealing with or discussing sexuality. But the sexual stigma ought to be changed, and it should start with an emphasis on sexual health programs such as S.H.A.R.E. teaching positive, mature messages about sex and relationships.