Em-URGE-ing Voices

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We’ve Freed the Pill. It’s Time to Free Sex Ed.

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October 26, 2023

As a Georgian, sex education in school primarily consisted of graphic photos of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). As a Latina, at home, sex education was nonexistent and as a Catholic, my sex education was full of shame. I learned what I could from friends, the internet, and pamphlets I’d sneak from my pediatrician’s office, but by the time I was interested in sex as a teenager, I still hadn’t learned much about how to have safe, consensual, and pleasurable sex. 

Thanks to sex-positive, feminist YouTube videos, I learned about birth control pills and secretly scheduled a gynecologist appointment to get some. Hopeful that I’d leave with what I needed, I was instead met with intense judgment and shame from a female doctor who claimed to be a reproductive health expert. Somehow, her expertise extended only to people she deemed old enough to be having sex. Embarrassed and without other resources, I eventually lied to my pediatrician about having period pain so  I could finally access birth control. Although I was just trying to protect myself from an unplanned pregnancy, the doctor made me feel that my request for birth control was unreasonable. 

Although some adults might wish otherwise, 55% of teens have had sex by age 18. If that many teens are having sex, it makes sense that we’d want them to know more about safe, consensual, and pleasurable sex. Comprehensive sex education (CSE) just might be the answer. Comprehensive sex education moves away from themes of only pregnancy and STI prevention, and into themes of healthy relationships, pleasure and bodily autonomy for all genders and sexualities. Supported by nearly three decades of research, CSE can reduce homophobia and intimate partner violence (IPV), and improve communication and self-image among young people. Despite the benefits, many teens are still receiving sex ed under the same philosophy I did: that if we’re silent about sex, maybe teens won’t think about it. In reality, abstinence-only sex ed (or none at all) doesn’t actually prevent young people from having sex, nor reduce teen pregnancy or STIs. Instead, it can reinforce harmful gender stereotypes, promote shame and guilt around sex, and further isolate LGBTQ+ youth through its heteronormative, puritanical lens. 

I’ll always remember my church youth pastor warning me that premarital sex would ruin my reputation, lead to STIs, and reflect poorly on my character, or how my school health teacher taught me about virginity as chewing gum. But most of all, I’ll always remember how LGBTQ+ relationships were left out of the picture entirely, leading me and my peers to sink further into shame. 

Sadly, in the decade since I’ve become a teenager, not much has changed on the sex education front. There’s still over 20 states that don’t require sex ed at all, and 16 that require sex ed be abstinence-only. LGBTQ+ folks are still left out of sex education, and some states even require sex education that is discriminatory against LGBTQ+ people. While I’m disappointed about the continued absence of CSE in schools, there’s at least some hope that future generations won’t experience the same shaming at the gynecologist as I did. In July of this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  approved the first over-the-counter (OTC)  birth control pill, Opill, which will likely hit the market in early 2024. While there could still be some logistical and financial barriers involved, making an OTC birth control pill available can lessen some of the barriers to accessing birth control for young people, especially those in a situation like mine, where their parents might not be supportive. This is an incredible win for the reproductive justice movement, but it’s not enough. If young people lack the awareness about contraceptives to begin with (like I did), having an OTC birth control won’t necessarily help them get there. 

I’m grateful that I was curious enough to search the internet for resources and had the courage to make (and go to) that gynecologist appointment on my own, even if it was embarrassing and unsuccessful. But we can’t expect every young person in my situation to be able to do the same, nor should we. What I needed, and what every young person deserves, is comprehensive sex education that emphasizes pleasure, consent, and safety for people of all genders and sexual orientations. While we can’t control what conversations parents are having with their children, or protect them from judgmental health care professionals,  we know that school-based CSE can improve sexual, social, and emotional health for young people of all genders and sexual orientations, and is supported by most parents across political divides. This research gives me hope that one day, we’ll be able to free sex ed, just like we’ve freed the pill. 

There can be no reproductive justice until we are given the education, resources, and access to make decisions about our own bodies, and that starts with sex education. The recent success of Opill is one step in the right direction towards supporting the healthy sexuality of young people, but an OTC birth control pill only works as long as young people know what it is and how to use it. With many young people growing up in homes, schools, and churches like mine, with zero conversation about sex, relationships, or contraceptives, it’s important that schools hire trained sex educators to teach young people about their bodies in a way that is free of shame, stigma, and bias. Everyone, no matter their background, deserves that.

Learn more about the movement to advance sex education for all at: