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Sex-Ed In America: The Problem With Teaching Abstinence

As many of you have seen, "Last Week Tonight" with John Oliver recently presented a 20-minute segment on how sexual education is failing teenagers in America.

He highlighted what we already know: Abstinence-only sex ed is totally, completely and utterly ineffective, yet persists, thanks to those set on making it as difficult as possible for teens to know anything whatsoever about their own genitals.

Opposition to abstinence education has existed for years, most damningly in the form of studies showing it does little to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STDs.

But now, as technology infiltrates every area of our lives, how much longer can these puritanical educators expect to control information when teens have the Internet at their fingertips?

To be clear, abstinence is by no means a wrong choice when it comes to sex; it is simply one choice that should be discussed alongside many others.

As Oliver words it: “Trying to yell the horniness out of teenagers” is not an effective form of sex ed. Abstinence-only education is about as informative as if driver’s ed were to teach “don’t drive” – there is no educational aspect at all.

Oliver reported that earlier this year, US Congress increased funding of abstinence-only programmes to $75 million, meaning that schools are given $75 million essentially NOT to provide sexual education, and certainly not a conclusive one when you remember how easy it is for teens to find the information they want online should they be denied it in the classroom.

This leaves only two options: You can hold a frank and informative discussion with teens directly, giving them the chance to ask questions and ensure the information they are given is accurate. Or, you can deny them the discussion altogether, making them feel so ashamed and perverted that they will find their way onto a Reddit thread where the info they glean is inaccurate, unreliable and sometimes downright appalling.

Because even if educators refuse to provide answers, teenagers still have questions not just limited to anatomy and health, but sexuality and identity.

Many US states also prohibit acknowledgement of homosexuality in sex ed, which sadly means, as Oliver warns, that sex ed questions from LBGT teens such as, “Is it okay to be gay?” may be ignored or even aggressively confronted.

It’s not just queer youth who are disadvantaged, but young women, too. If there is one poisonous thread found weaving through all the pro-abstinence, sex-makes-Jesus-cry propaganda, it’s the notion that sexually-active women are promiscuous, morally bankrupt, sex-crazed jezebels who prey on pure and vulnerable men.

If you’re a naïve 13-year-old having that message drilled into you every day, it could easily shape your view of the world, and by extension, how you treat women.

But teens today differ enormously from teens 10 years ago. It’s not a matter of secretly Googling your sex questions on the family computer when your parents leave the room; it’s as easy as looking it up on your phone from any location.

While the danger of an online sex education is that the information provided could be dubious, it can also provide a support network for teens.

After scrolling through Tumblr, teen girls will see it’s okay to be outraged by archaic views on their gender and sexuality, and perhaps the views of their teachers or parents are not a reflection of the wider society.

In this way, teenagers can feel more comfortable in their skin, while also building the confidence to reject ideology they disagree with.

By putting sex behind a velvet rope, teenagers only become more interested in experiencing it, which means there are more important things to address than simply whether or not someone should have sex in the first place.

Teens will inevitably have sex, and when they do, they should know about birth control, the risk of pregnancy, STDs, different types of sexuality, pornography, masturbation and, perhaps, most importantly (considering it’s a rampant problem in Gen-Y), what constitutes consent.

Maybe the most appalling fact referenced on "Last Week Tonight" is that the US has no set standard for sexual education, and therein lies a messy problem. Having two teenagers engaging in sex from two very different educations is rife with problems, the biggest one being consent.

As Oliver points out, educators “spend so much time on the importance of saying no, they can leave out what informed, enthusiastic consent looks like.”

By leaving it up to individual states and schools to decide on their preferred approach to sex ed, you run the risk of omitting key information, or worse, misinformation.

Teenagers country-wide should be provided with a uniform sexual education, and should do so free from personal views and bias. They need also to be responsible and ensure the information is up-to-date.

Even though teenagers can find supplementary information on sex online, it’s certainly not an ideal education. Googling sex questions is not totally dissimilar to typing your symptoms in to web MD. The answers can be funny, but rarely are they accurate.

Unfortunately, online information can’t actually be any better at US high schools considering only 13 states require sex ed information to be medically accurate, meaning fiction is an acceptable teaching tool in what is technically a health class.

This alone should serve as a wake-up call. In Oliver’s words, it seems that often in America’s sex ed classrooms, “learning nothing would’ve been better than learning that.”

When it comes to sex education, personal beliefs do more harm than good, especially when concerning the cult of virginity.

The emphasis on virginity – guarding it, maintaining it, ensuring it remains unopened and untouched as if it were a mint-condish "Star Wars" figurine in its original packaging — sends the harmful message that having sex renders you damaged goods.

This is a gendered view, Oliver explains, targeted at women, in particular, to warn that “sex devalues those who have it,” or, to put it more plainly, that sex is something reserved for freewheelin’ nymphos.

It ignores the reality that people can be both sexually active AND responsible; the two are not mutually exclusive. This highlights an important factor in sex ed, but also one people are furthest from comfortably acknowledging: Sex can be pleasurable and fun.

Sex doesn’t have to occur because you love someone, because you want to procreate or because it’s your wedding night. The reality is, most people have sex simply because they like it and want to.

The only checklist needed for sex is consent and protection, and teens are catching on to that.

Perhaps, hearing anecdotal evidence from other teens that sex doesn't result in the apocalypse after all is NOT encouraging promiscuity, but merely sending the message adults don't want to say: Sex is normal.

The fact is, teenagers will have sex whether you want them to or not; no amount of shaming or misinformation will deter them if they have their minds set on it.

Sexual education is awkward and embarrassing for everyone, but to deny access to information they will need for the rest of their lives simply because you disagree with it or want to pretend it doesn’t exist is doing them a huge disservice.

This disservice has been proven time and, again, results in STDs and unwanted pregnancies.

By removing shame and judgment from the equation, you open the floor to more important questions teenagers are desperate to have answers to.

You reassure self-conscious and inquisitive teens that their bodies, their urges and sexual identities are normal and, more importantly, nobody’s business but their own.