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I’m a Women’s Health Writer With an MPH: Here’s What I Think Sex Ed Should Look Like in 2023

Here's why we deserve comprehensive deserve sex ed throughout our lives, not just in high school.
Read Time — 7 minutes
Words by Gwendolyn Rosen, MPH; Edited by Amelia Marran-Baden

When people hear “sex ed,” they think of a high school gym teacher saying things like “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!” 

Unfortunately, this iconic quote from Mean Girls embodies the extremely low bar of many people’s sex education experience––if they received sex ed at all. 

We don’t know about you, but our lives have changed a lot since we were in high school! Our sexual health needs evolve after we’re 18, so shouldn’t there be a chance to revisit sex ed? Adults need sex education, too—especially since we’re the ones most frequently having sex! 

As a women’s health writer who has taught sex education to people of all ages, I have a lot of thoughts about what sex education should look like in order to grow with our evolving bodies and lives. Let’s get into it!  

Adults need sex ed, too. 

Let’s start with the simple fact that many adults actually never received sex education when they were young–– about a quarter of states have no mandate for any type of sex education or HIV education in schools. 

For those who did have the opportunity to attend a sex ed class, the content can vary drastically depending on your state and specific school district. 

29 states require that abstinence be stressed, despite ample research that shows that abstinence-only education is ineffective. Even more horrifying, only 17 states require sex education to be medically accurate.

If you had the privilege of receiving comprehensive sex education, or had a parent who was willing to give you the never not awkward  bird and the bees talk, it’s important to keep in mind that sex ed is not a one-and-done kind of thing as it’s often framed in our culture to be. 

Your sexuality, your relationships, and your body evolve throughout your life. There should be opportunities to explore those shifts with access to information, resources, and support. 

What would a dream sex ed course for adults (especially those with vaginas) look like? 

The lack of access to sex education affects everyone, but women and people with vaginas often bear the brunt of it. People have a hard time saying the word vagina, let alone teaching us anything about it. And this has real life consequence, from perpetuating a culture of shame around vaginas to the perpetual sexual violence that plagues our society. Something has to change. And one of the most impactful ways to do that is to start with education.   

So, what would I put in my dream adult sex ed curriculum? Here are the highlights, which truly just skim the surface!  

Ongoing education that evolves with our changing bodies (beyond puberty!)

Maybe you went to puberty night in middle school and learned that your boobs were going to grow, your period was going to come, and you were going to start growing hair in places you didn’t even know existed. Great! But  our bodies keep changing (like seriously changing) long after our first period. What then?!

Whether it’s the physical shifts that come with hormonal shakeups, like pregnancy or menopause, or the monthly changes to our vaginal discharge, we all deserve to know how our bodies work, what to expect, and which symptoms constitute are a call to a doctor.

For example, did you know that the vagina and vulva are two distinct parts of genitalia? Or that you have a vaginal microbiome, a complex ecosystem of bacteria and fungi that’s related to everything from infections like BV and yeast infections, to STI acquisition, to even certain gynecological cancers? You do and you can learn more about it here!

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And lastly, for anyone who was told and still thinks their clitoris is “a button at the top of their vagina,”we have good news for you (and your sex life), it’s much more than that!  

The clitoris is a complex struture that extends from the clitoral glans (the “button) at top of the vulva, down to your vaginal opening, almost as if it’s straddling your Labia minora.  Like an iceberg, the part that can be seen and touched is just the tip. The clitoral body is internal but can be stimulated internally through the vagina or through the vulva. 

Sadly, like so many parts of health for people with vaginas the clitoris has been neglected in medical research, which leads to many people not getting the sexual healthcare they need. Everyone, including medical professionals, could use a more thorough anatomy class. 

Communication, Communication, Communication. 

If I only had an hour to teach sex ed, this would be the focus. It’s wild that we all spent hours in school learning calculus but not how to talk about our needs. (Or do our taxes, but that’s a rant for another day.) 

Everything, and I mean everything, comes down to whether you have the skills to express yourself and understand other people. Consenting to sex, finding more pleasure during sex, telling a partner about a vaginal infection, creating safer sex boundaries like using condoms or getting tested for STIs, having hard conversations with your loved ones, and even your own self-talk about body image all come down to good communication skills. 

Unfortunately, without sex education, many people learn their communication skills from unreliable sources. A recent study found that 18-24 year olds cited pornography as the most helpful source to learn about sex.  And this can seriously influence the way young people, particularly men, think about sex and the power dynamics within it.

While (some) porn can be a great way to explore fantasies, a high percentage of it is dangerous  entertainment–––not education. 

A 2020 analysis of heterosexual scenes from some of the most popular porn sites (Pornhub and Xvideos), showed that up to 45% of scenes included a form of aggression, with women being the target of 97% of those scenes. 

To make things even worse, sex education writer Peggy Orenstein points out racism pervades porn too—the recipients of aggression in porn are more often Black women while Black men are more frequently portrayed as aggressors. 

To that point, since porn is often young people’s first exposure to sex, it’s absolutely essential to supplement porn with conversations around consent, safer sex, and equal pleasure than leaving our youth’s perceptions of what good sex is to the distorted and often violence-laced portrayals of sexual relationships in porn.   

Unlearning Shame…

Sex is like a celebrity that has had really bad PR over the years. Whatever myths you may have heard, they all lead to one pretty central place: having sex for pleasure is promiscuous , unless you’re trying to make a baby with your husband. That’s not only untrue, but it leaves out a lot of people’s sexual experiences! 

It’s important to have and make space to unpack that shame. In a sex education class, this might include revisiting and investigating the values you’ve held (consciously or unconsciously) when it comes to sex.

What are values about sexuality that you learned from your family, your community, your culture? Which ones still hold true for you? More importantly, what type of  values do you want to practice in your relationships, including your sexual ones? These are all important questions to ask yourself! 

While sex ed can be a great place to start the process of unlearning shame, it also can bring up thoughts and experiences that may need extra attention in a one-on-one setting like therapy. 

…and prioritizing pleasure 

Say it with me: sex. should. feel. good! 2023 is the year we are exploring what we need for sex to be a fun and pleasurable experience. 

Some not-so-fun-facts: woman are more likely to experience pain during sex and women are less likely to have orgasms compared to men during a heterosexual sexual encounter. This orgasm gap can be attributed to many different cultural problems, but a few highlights are our lack of knowledge about sexual communication (per the above!) and both partners’ lack of knowledge about the clitoris.

Learning more about what you like and how to instruct a partner (or do it yourself!) can open up so many doors for how great sex can be. 

One great way to explore what makes you feel good? Masturbate! Not only does masturbation have awesome health benefits like relieving period cramps, reducing stress, and improving sleep, but it’s also a great way to get in touch (no pun intended) with what you find pleasurable.  

For some people, sex is more than not pleasurable–––it’s downright uncomfortable. Painful sex is common unfortunately, but that doesn’t mean it should be normalized. If you’re experiencing pain during sex, check out our article on potential causes. And don’t feel shy about brining it up with your OB-GYN at your next appointment. We’ll say it again: Sex should feel good! 

How Can I Access Sex Ed as an Adult? 

Invest in your own pleasure: 

Sexual health clinics often offer workshops for people of all ages. Your local sex toy shop may host more pleasure-focused classes. There are also incredible organizations like SHIP and independent educators that offer online workshops for adults. And if porn sites like Pornhub aren’t doing it for you (they don’t do it fur us either), check out some more feminist-leaning alternatives like Quinn or Dipsea!  

Learn:

Here are some great sex education books for adults: Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski, Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown, Becoming Cliterate by Dr. Laurie Mintz, Unscrewed by Jaclyn Friedman and Boys & Sex and Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein. And if podcasts are more your thing, check out Sex with Emily, by Dr. Emily Morse. 

Ask questions: 

We’ve established that none of us received sufficient sex education, so there is no shame in asking questions! We love when our community asks us questions in our comments. There are also online chat features, like Planned Parenthood’s Roo, where you can chat with a health educator to get answers to your questions. 

While we hope sex education for young people is on the way to improvement, we also want you to have the tools and resources to explore your sexuality at any age. At Evvy, we’re happy to play our part by spreading the word about vaginal health to everyone, no matter how much prior knowledge you were able to absorb in your 9th grade health class. 

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