The Talk You Never Had
Welcome, little virgin, to the world of sex.
That’s what I imagined my inner goddess saying to me as I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, listening to my knowledgeable older friend—and by older I, of course, mean by a gargantuan two years—tell me about her mature relationship and how it’s okay to masturbate because it’s normal! She tells me how she is definitely bisexual; I mean, she has never dated a girl, but she’s “hooked up” with one—granted, at the time she was attempting to impress a boy she liked with her lesbian wiles, but she is surely attracted to women in general.
And there you have it: sexual education at its finest, delivered to the ears of an inexperienced teenager straight from the mouth of a slightly less inexperienced teenager.
Because who else are we supposed to listen to? God forbid we actually remember anything from that one semester we took Ninth-Grade Health for Wellness credit. With tests, extracurriculars, and freshman drama flooding our day-to-day lives, it was practically in our nature not to take that class seriously.
Sure, we watched tapes of television shows from the 90’s and tried on drunk goggles, but ultimately, as sophomore Adam Baker put it, “They kind of [gave] you an overview of everything in a way, you know, that you don’t really learn a lot. You just learn little bits.”
Health teacher William Fagen said that the goal of his classes is to give accurate information about things that high school students may encounter in their lives to promote better decision-making. As he pointed out, our parents and teachers most likely will not be there to take the red Solo cup out of our hands, so the most he can do as an educator is provide the facts.
“I feel that ninth graders are really vulnerable,” Fagen said. “They come in kind of with a blank slate because they really don’t learn that much about sex ed, drugs, and alcohol as middle-schoolers (…) high school is not middle school. Things aren’t black and white anymore. It’s like this whole big world of ‘maybe.’”
And if there ever is need for advice, just look at the media. Dieting tips! Pregnancy rumors! Read all about it! The photoshopped faces that cover glossy magazines convince us that we must dress a certain a way and like certain things—things like the female derriere, which is just one example of how the media targets us with body image pressure. We may stick Kim Kardashian’s rear at the end of every punchline, but at the end of the day, most of us are still scrutinizing our own bodies.
By far, the media directs most pressures about physical appearance towards women, but when it comes to pressures about sexuality, everyone is fair game. Beautiful people are nearly always straight; they marry other beautiful straight people and have beautiful straight kids. We look on and wish we were as perfect as them, and then we look at the others. The different ones.
Just take a look at Ellen Degeneres. She’s lesbian and successful! What an angelic voice that Chris Colfer has—he used to star on that show Glee, which was filled with unique characters whose passions for music united them as a family!
If we spend so much time and effort trying to build an open and safe community, then why do we constantly strive to organize ourselves into neat labels and acronyms? For the sake of convenience? Understanding who we are through these terms may be educational initially, but we all too easily become obsessed with the idea that we can categorize everybody into tiny little boxes.
From an early age—before most of us know who we are even aside from our sexuality—society forces us to confine ourselves within the definition of one label. Be attracted to males; be attracted to females—whatever your decision is, stick with it.
The line seems clear: either you’re normal or you’re an oddity. After someone “comes out,” it’s easy to forget that that human being has personal traits just like everyone else. All the lectures on appreciating people for who they are inside suddenly vanish away, and they become nothing but the object of their label.
Unfortunately, we don’t get enough people like sophomore Harry de Vries, who said, “I don’t think of Oscar Wilde as a (…) member of LGBT. But he’s a writer, and that’s how I think of him.” Let’s face it: you’re not going to have sex with everyone you meet. While some may feel that sexuality is an important part of their identity, we are a lot more: we love to eat curry; we hate wearing socks that don’t match; we can sing the alphabet backwards in under ten seconds. The list of characteristics that make us unique has no end, and who we are attracted to makes up just one part of this long list.
The expectation to cement our identities publicly has taught teenagers that any sort of fluidity is abnormal, yet without any experience, how can we already know what exactly this identity is? Are we attracted to certain genders because of a natural instinct or because we think we should be attracted to them? Our high school years should be an opportunity for us to explore who we are and who we want to be amidst all the craziness around us. This is hard to do when we don’t take those who do experiment seriously.
In the 90’s, for example, a number of women adopted the term, “lesbian until graduation” (or “LUG” for short), a “trend” that carries on today. The stereotypical “hasbian”
experiments to gain attention, especially from males, but once she hits graduation, poof—the rebellious magic is gone, and she starts to date men again. “It’s like a junior year abroad to Gay World,” joked comedian and writer Deirdre Sullivan.
While the media may debase experimentation to cute little acronyms, in reality, the world is just surprised that its “one size fits all” theory doesn’t actually fit everyone.
Experimentation is real. It is relevant. It shouldn’t be okay to assume girls just make out with other girls to appear exotic or to relieve their boredom. Television shows often fetishize female-on-female activity as a tool for male enjoyment. What may initially come across as a cute joke actually belittles someone’s sexuality, which may be even more harmful for someone already outside of his or her comfort zone.
With guys, on the other hand, it seems that the “luxury” of sexual fluidity is nonexistent altogether. Once he decides to experiment with another man, he is immediately and eternally 100% gay. While being gay itself is not a bad thing, labeling is unnecessary and can intimidate people from even thinking about experimentation in the first place.
Dealing with labels can be tricky. As junior Alana Bojar stated, “[They] can be liberating because when you find a label that suits you it shows that there are people like you and that you are not alone in whatever your identity is. It proves that you have a valid identity.”
But, she added, people grow and change. “People might think that once you label yourself as something there’s no changing, but that’s not true. Labels can… be confining.” If we choose to identify as one thing, we should be able to shed that identity as we feel is appropriate.
Coach Sue Sylvester, the menacing high school cheerleading coach on former television series Glee, hit it pretty close to home. In an episode called “Laryngitis,” Kurt confessed that he thought he was a disappointment to his father because of his sexuality. At this, Coach scoffed, “‘Sexuality’… How old are you, sixteen? Have you even kissed a boy?”—“No”—“Have you ever kissed a girl?”—“No”—“Well then how could you possibly know what you like? You see, that’s the problem with your generation: you’re obsessed with labels. So you like show tunes! That doesn’t mean you’re gay—it just means you’re awful.”
While she may be wrong about show choir, she does have a point: we high schoolers should be allowed fluidity in our identities—whether it’s about our musical tastes, sexual orientations, or genders. Why limit ourselves to one description when we don’t even know what the word means? At this point, as Mr. Fagen remarked, the best thing to do is to absorb information that will keep us both aware and safe.
This is where Ninth Grade Health comes in. We might take sex ed for granted, but it’s pretty amazing that adolescents are as fortunate as us and able to learn about sexuality at all in public schools.
Believe it or not, a recent Last Week Tonight with John Oliver episode found that only “22 states… mandate sex ed,” and only “13 states require that the instruction be medically accurate.” With such inconsistency in the education system across the country, it’s no wonder we have to constantly combat issues such as teen pregnancy.
Many conservatives have maintained a strong opposition to sex ed since the 1960s, arguing that this class would promote sexual activity among youths; many thought that sex should remain a topic for family or religious discussion. When the AIDS epidemic spread in the 1980s, however, opposition dwindled. Obviously, teenagers were still having sex, but now they weren’t as educated about the dangers of intercourse as they should have been.
Many teachers believe there is value in the “information-only” philosophy. Sue Vincent teaches sex ed at Maple Grove High School, where the K-12 enrollment stands at a mere 749. Even in Bemus Point, NY, she said, “I teach an abstinence based program, but know that some teenagers are sexually active, so I do address that sex includes oral, anal, and traditional sex and discuss the consequences to discourage it.”
We cannot expect for everyone to wait until marriage to explore the depths of intimacy. A quick walk down that sketchy hallway near South’s art classrooms is evidence that teenagers jump at the chance to be intimate with one another. Sexual education is necessary to guide us in everything from how to put on a condom to the importance of
testing for STDs to the meaning of gender identity and sexual orientation. Without this class, we’d resort to YouTube tutorials and Yahoo! Answers—or trial and error.
In recent years, the media has made strides toward raising awareness for sexuality and health education. Though criticized for promoting teen pregnancy, shows like 16 and Pregnant—and later, Teen Mom—have actually been linked to both more Google searches and more Tweets asking about contraception and birth control, and an ultimate 5.7% decrease in teen births during the 18 months after the show’s premier, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Online, MTV’s It’s Your Sex Life provides true, personal stories and FAQ’s about a variety of topics from STDs to LGBTQ, and it lists hotlines and resources for more information. Television shows integrate ever-growing casts of diverse characters, from Pretty Little Liars’ gorgeous lesbian, Emily Fields, to Grey’s Anatomy’s bisexual Dr. Callie Torres. As the world of entertainment continues to dominate our lives, it’s important for the media to acknowledge that people come in different sizes, shapes, colors, and sexualities—without drawing attention to any one character.
In terms of formal education, Newton South conducts a health course that is, fortunately, not abstinence-based. Well-educated administrators have carefully organized a curriculum that Mr. Fagen, Ms. Petrizzi, and their counterparts at North re-analyze every summer. They try to pick out what is still relevant and accurate today. Mr. Fagen claimed he still plays the same VHS tapes because despite the fact that the teens use outrageously huge telephones, the message still holds true: drinking is dangerous; peer pressure is dangerous; relationships are dangerous.
Even though these videos are still relevant, how many can we really watch about drunk driving? The half-year course devotes most of its curriculum to STDs, the dangers of drunk driving, and drug abuse, leaving kids “in the dark” about topics regarding sexuality. “Not enough light is shed on it as it should be,” said Baker.
It is impossible for me to claim that our curriculum is not diverse, but the imbalance of information is striking. While I value the warnings about drunk driving, I also value something that is just as relevant: sexuality. It’s all around us as teenagers, yet because we only have one semester to cram in the whole curriculum, we only get the basics—we learn a polarized version of sexual orientation and gender. We learn about being straight or gay or being a boy or a girl, but we never acknowledge the in-between, the gray areas.
Junior Risa Gelles-Watnick agreed that reality is not that black and white: “Everyone’s in such a rush to define their sexuality with these predefined labels when in reality, our orientations are spectrums… Our sexualities are constantly changing and defining ourselves too early can limit us.”
Through media and formal education, society puts pressure on our generation to decide who we are very early, without much experience. They don’t give us the time or exposure to figure out our sexual identities and preferences or the ability to explore in a socially acceptable way. Maybe if we lived in a space where sexual exploration in all contexts was welcome, adolescence wouldn’t be nearly so troubling or difficult. Maybe, if we were allowed to ask ourselves the tough questions without stigma, we wouldn’t feel the immense stress that comes from diverting from the norm.