When you hear ‘high school’ and ‘sex education’ in the same sentence, an instant-cringe response is triggered. You flash back to your early teens, trapped in a sweaty PE classroom, while the elderly school nurse demonstrates rolling a condom (always neon green, for some reason) onto a model penis. Shaking hands and nervous laughter are induced as the nurse invites someone to come forward try it. Some wit pipes up from the back of the class that everyone here has either done this a thousand times by now or probably never will.
Our sex education wasn’t perfect. But somehow, that knowledge did get in.
In 2011, the state of Mississippi, USA had the second highest rates of gonorrhoea, chlamydia and teenage pregnancy in the country. Figures suggest that a third of babies born in the state are the product of a teenage pregnancy, and more than half of surveyed teens claimed to have had sex before leaving high school. But the truly staggering fact? In Mississippi it is illegal for a teacher to give a condom demonstration.
Schools in the state are obliged by law to give classes on sexual health but require written permission from parents. Even disregarding Mississippi’s religious conservatism, it is difficult enough to remind 20 or more teenagers to bring in a signed slip. Assuming they manage this, the students are then separated according to gender. When at last these requirements are fulfilled and teachers can actually teach, their curriculum options are: abstinence or… abstinence-plus. It doesn’t seem like much of a choice. Abstinence-plus programs touch upon contraception – but the law prevents teachers from using all-important demonstrations or visual aids. With a reported majority of schools opting for abstinence-only programmes, the support offered to teens is woefully inadequate.
Into this catalogue of ignorance enters Sanford Johnson, a policy advocate who, in frustration at the absurdly restrictive guidelines, posted a video on YouTube titled How to Put on a Sock. Johnson introduces his video by acknowledging the frustrating paradox that, ‘we’re going to teach teens how to use condoms correctly and consistently, however we cannot do condom demonstrations’. He then encourages his audience to ‘make sure your foot is protected’, while engaging in ‘shoe activity’. Johnson demonstrates this with his own sock, including pinching the air out of the top to protect ‘the toes’, rolling the sock so that it entirely covers ‘the foot’ and showing how to safely remove and dispose of the sock at the conclusion of the activity. It’s extremely obvious what all this is intended to represent, and Johnson has the kind of tongue-in-cheek delivery which clearly acknowledges how absurd the entire situation is.
Abstinence-based education has proven itself not only ineffective, but downright harmful. In 2014, Mississippi came under fire for using the ‘Peppermint Pattie’ exercise in schools, in which an unwrapped chocolate is passed around, likening non-virgins to ‘soiled’ or ‘dirty’ chocolate. The shame which such techniques engender can have incalculable effects. It is common for abstinence-based sex education classes to conclude with the signing of an abstinence contract, invoking the teenagers’ promise to save sex for an implicitly Christian and heteronormative marriage. Not only does this border on religious indoctrination, it also raises problematic issues of responsibility. Teens may be too young for sex – surely this also makes them too young to decide on an indeterminate period of abstinence, possibly stretching into decades? This model is proven not to work.
Johnson’s video, posted in 2012 has had over a million views. Its popularity is credited with improving the dialogue about sex education in Mississippi. With prohibitive laws expiring in 2016, sex positive advocates are hopeful that this will bring policy change and relaxation of guidelines. Though the conservative faction in the state is not likely to disappear any time soon, the support for Johnson’s video suggests that there is not only a need, but a demand for change.
It is easy to point the finger from the other side of the Atlantic. While we can chuckle at the video, it should be acknowledged that sex education in the UK is nowhere close to perfect yet. Ours was a negative education – babies, diseases and stigma, rather than pleasure and respect. Essential concepts like consent went unmentioned, while social constructs like gender and virginity were never interrogated. We learned basic sexual health but despite our best efforts, there is still a culture of shame around sex.
Best pull our socks up and soldier on. We’ve got further to go than we think.
[Helen Victoria Murray – @HelenVMurray]