Public vs. Private School: My Sex Ed Experience

It all started when I was six years old. I went into a public bathroom with my mother and saw her purchase a product from what I now know of is a tampon machine. I made the mistake of asking if I, too, could have a candy bar, and my very, very open mother decided this was the time for The Talk. The whole Talk. Nothing but The Talk.

We’re talking penis-in-vagina, sexual diseases, egg and sperm– everything. This lead to a crisis of over-information a few months later when my best friend and my brother were playing under my bed and wouldn’t let me join them and I had a meltdown because I didn’t want to be an auntie at six (for the record, they were only a year older).

Welcome to womanhood. There is no candy bars, just blood and misery.

Welcome to womanhood. There are no candy bars, just blood.

But I was a precocious little Hermione-wannabe. The library was my best friend, and, growing up in the mountains in Washington, our library was tragically limited to whatever books folks around town had donated. Much of my early education came from pulp fantasy novels (as I mentioned in Romance Novels Lead To Better Condom Use). I don’t know who donated all those books, but they really opened my young eyes.

From kindergarten to the 8th grade, I attended my local public school. In terms of most things public school, it was actually very good. But for sex ed? It was terrible. Damaging, even.

My public school sex ed teacher had good intentions (read about Kara’s experience with public school sex ed). But I don’t think she was very willing to consider anything outside her own limited experiences. She’d waited until marriage to have sex, and she married her high school sweetheart. She also wasn’t gay, and didn’t really know any gay people, so any info she had on that topic was pretty moot. And I was already neck-deep in some serious Mercedes Lackey, so even at my young age I found her info to be both ignorant and disrespectful.

If you learned about homosexuality from telepathic, white horses, you knew more than my junior high.

If you learned about homosexuality from telepathic, white horses, you were ahead of most of the kids in my junior high.

While we were never told that holding hands can lead to pregnancy, we were told some of the following things which make me a little sick to recall:

  • Lesbians have a higher rate of breast cancer than straight women.
  • Anal sex between gay men has a higher rate of resulting in anal cancers than between a heterosexual anal sex encounter.
  • Sex before marriage is a bad idea because you don’t want to be having wedding night sex and accidentally say the wrong name, do you??? DO YOU?!
  • Easy girls get raped.
  • Masturbation, contraception, STDs that weren’t HIV/AIDs, alternative sexualities, relationship dynamics, gender roles = never discussed, except in the negative.
  • Bisexual people are more likely to be, “diseased.”
  • On the topic of transgender people: “No one wants that.” And I realize now, with an earth-shattering cringe, that one of my best friends in that class came out as trans a few short years later, so you can imagine that caused a lot of internalized angst.

We also watched this video that I have been trying to find online for years just to prove to my significant other that it exists. The lack of evidence makes me more and more concerned it was only a fevered dream, but the premise was this: your body is a house on a hill. Many men in crazy lobster costumes are trying to get into the house, but there are men dressed in white who won’t let them in. Then, a red lobster man comes and gives the man in white a secret handshake which turns the man in white into a fellow red lobster man. He is allowed inside.

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This is how I learned about AIDs.

With a school system like this, it’s no surprise that my friend’s mother told me (when I was in the sixth grade), “I haven’t told my daughter anything about sex. I know you’ll just tell her anything she wants to know.”

Which, to be fair, after the internet became a thing, was really true. I was a goddamn guru on the horse trails where we used to play. And it wasn’t like I was using that information. I didn’t have sex until I was in college–because I knew that it involved emotional consequences and I didn’t think I was ready for that.

I just liked knowing about it. It was interesting to me, and it still is. What sucks is that I have to justify that natural curiosity with the fact that I wasn’t promiscuous, as if to say, “Yes, I liked learning about my body, but that didn’t make me a creep.”

And then Catholic school happened.

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You may think this is the end of your sexually precocious author, but you may be surprised. My sex ed from a Catholic school was more informative, more intelligent, and way less judgmental than sex ed from a public school.

It was a class called Christian Morality. I know, I know. The name still makes me giggle.

My teacher was a bra-burning feminist from the 60’s. But she was also a die-hard Catholic. She’d some how managed to reconcile those two into a powerhouse of social justice. Like, I explicitly remember the abortion talk. She lead in with, “Abortion. Like you can get at this [specific Planned Parenthood] at [specific address]. Now, the Church thinks it’s wrong. Let’s talk about how the procedure works and why it’s so controversial.”

There weren’t any condom demonstrations. She told us that the school wouldn’t let her do them, but she gave us other resources on how to use them. She taught us about the chemical effects of birth control– accurate facts. She even mentioned some of the controversy– for example, at the time, there was a concern that taking Plan B too often could lead to sterility (this has since been found to be untrue).

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We talked about other things that never came up in my public school sex ed, like how gender roles are presented in the media, how a teen pregnancy can affect a whole community, healthy and unhealthy relationships, and even masturbation. One mortifying and yet eye-opening moment even involved her talking about how even though the priests who lived and taught at our school had taken vows of chastity, that didn’t mean they didn’t have a sexuality.

Unlike public school, she never told us why we shouldn’t have sex– even pre-marital sex. She told us the consequences of doing so– she showed us a video of a baby being conceived, all the way through its formation and birth. And she showed us slides of STD-infected genitalia. It was traumatizing when I was fifteen. I spent the entire time staring at my desk and vowing to become a nun.

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The consequences of sex were made to seem very real, but her delivery lead me to be able to discern for myself what was best for me. And while I was horrified, it didn’t lead to me fearing sex. It lead to me respecting it, which is probably why I ended up waiting until I was emotionally mature enough to begin my own sexual journey.

I know that this is not the norm with private schools, let alone Catholic schools. And it wasn’t perfect either. But when I talk to friends about their experiences in sex ed, I feel pretty lucky.

And when I look back on it, I realize why. My teacher was committed to presenting truth and knowledge, not enforcing her own morals on us. She presented us with facts and let us come to the conclusions for ourselves.

 

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