Remember high school sex ed? If you were lucky enough to get any curriculum on sex, it probably consisted of a couple of slides of diseased genitals, an explanation of wet dreams and maybe a real-life demo of a condom rolled onto a banana.
If you found this brief and cursory explanation of human sexuality absolutely useless when it came to navigating relationships with real, live people, you’re not alone. A new global analysis finds that students experience sex ed as out of touch, insensitive, negative and often exclusionary.
Students also reported that teachers were poorly trained and often visibly embarrassed to be presenting the material, which doesn’t exactly send the message that sex is a healthy and acceptable part of life.
“Some schools are doing a really good job but others need to think very carefully about how they deliver [sex and relationship education],” said the study’s lead author Pandora Pound, a research fellow focusing on youth and sexual health education at the University of Bristol. “This study shows that it is not only important to get the content of [sex ed] right, but also vitally important to get the right people to deliver that content.”
The researchers reviewed 55 qualitative studies of students, primarily aged 12 to 18 years, from 10 different countries over 25 years. The responses were strikingly similar across decades and countries and educational methods: Both students who received comprehensive sex ed and those who got abstinence-only sex ed described their teachers’ presentation of sex as mostly negative.
Here are five of the most intriguing observations, in students’ own words:
1. Toxic gender roles are a disruptive presence.
Male respondents often shared that they hesitated to ask questions, because it would reveal how “inexperienced” they were. Instead, some admitted that they acted disruptively during class as a way to hide their insecurity and anxiety about sex.
“Some people are too scared to say things so they cover that up by being noisy and disrupt the class,” said one young man from a 2003 U.K. study.
Young women, on the other hand, reported verbal harassment from the male students if they tried to participate in class, and they faced taunts about their sexual reputations. Teachers didn’t confront these disruptive students about their behavior, or were even complicit in it.
“Mrs. Blackshaw, right, she can’t really talk to us properly about it because the boys start making snide remarks and everything like that… so you get to the stage where if you do want to ask anything you won’t ask it because the boys will start making remarks,” said another girl in a 2002 Scotland study.
Students said they would feel safer in smaller, more confidential groups where they could participate without calling attention to themselves in a large class setting. Some young women said same-gender classes would be better for them, but most young men expressed a preference for mixed-gender classes.
2. Teachers are visibly embarrassed by the material.
Some students said their teachers were uncomfortable about presenting the subjects to students, which made the kids feel unsafe discussing the sensitive material. An exchange between two young female students, captured in 2009 by New Zealand researchers, is instructive:
Zara: We had Miss Plum she was a PE teacher but she cried. Zoe: Yeah she did aye. Zara: So we just felt sorry for her, [student’s name] made her cry about three times. Zoe: Yeah. Zara: Like it was so horrible.
Another student from a 2011 Canadian study had this to say about teachers’ discomfort: “If your teacher who’s a grown up can’t talk about it, how are you (supposed to)? That gives you the impression that, oh I’m not really supposed to talk about it.”
Students were torn on who should teach the material, but many felt that sex ed harmed the pre-established relationship between teacher and student and thought an outside expert, school nurse or peer educator would be best. This exchange among students, from a 2007 book by Pam Alldred and Miriam E. David called Get Real About Sex: The Politics and Practice of Sex Education, explains why students want to distance themselves from teachers they already know when it comes to sexual health.
PA: Who do you want to learn [sexual education] from? Girls (chorus): Somebody we don’t know. Girl: The school nurse or somebody that comes in. PA: So you all agree? What are the reasons for having somebody you don’t know? Girl: So when you tell them something they don’t know you. Girl: You don’t get embarrassed like in front of teachers. Girl: Well, you’d be embarrassed the next day with a teacher. Girl: We don’t want them to know all about us. PA: Is it about privacy? Girl: Yeah. It’s like your own feelings...
3. The lessons are too technical and moralistic.
Complaints about the tone of sex education were twofold: Students said there was too much of a focus on biological processes, to the exclusion of relationships and desire and they also said that the presentation was too moralistic and presented a narrow view of “legitimate” sexuality.
One student from a 2001 study of female Nova Scotia students complained that her teacher never actually discussed the act of sex between a couple. Instead, it was all about the interaction between sex cells.
“Like the sperm goes up the fallopian tube, hits the egg…we don’t care about that,” the anonymous student said.
"I think that their main focus is on, you don’t feel pressured to have sex and things like that. They don’t realize that a lot of girls want to have sex, too." American student, 2009
Students also complained that sexual health education seemed to focus on sexual relationships between men and women, without any discussion of same-sex relationships.
“They don’t mention anything about same-sex relationships or homophobia,” said one student from a 2011 U.K. study. “I think they should so more people are aware.”
4. Most sex ed neglects to mention desire, agency or consent.
Students also expressed frustration that teachers failed to acknowledge sexual desire as a concept ― or acknowledge that students already saw themselves as sexual beings. Because of this, teachers didn’t discuss things like masturbation or sex acts other than intercourse. Some students were disturbed by the emphasis on abstinence in some schools, thinking it unrealistic. Finally, young women felt like the material presented them as passive victims of male sex drive instead of willing participants with their own desires.
“Natalie,” a teen girl in a 2009 U.S. study, said the sex education she received didn’t acknowledge female sexual desire.
“I think that their main focus is on, you don’t feel pressured to have sex and things like that. I think that they depict it was the guy wants to have sex and the girl doesn’t. And the guy is like, ‘Oh it will feel good.’ They don’t realize that a lot of girls want to have sex, too. And so I don’t think that they focus on that enough at all.”
“They didn’t really help you with your sexual feelings, they made you kind of feel bad about having them,” said another student from a 2015 Canadian study.
The students also said that they received their sexual health education too late, and that it didn’t cover important topics like how to behave or make sex pleasurable for both partners. Because of this, many said they watched pornography instead to get the relevant information.
“So you just were taught about sexual intercourse causing pregnancy, but you were never taught about masturbation; you were never taught about oral sex all the different, other types of sexual practices,” said a student from a 2005 study on Northern Ireland sex ed.
In addition to desire, students’ needs were diverse and they included everything from wanting to learn how to say “no” to sex to having an outlet to discuss sexual abuse, sexual pressure and learn how to be more confident when having sexual conversations.
5. Sex ed can be a lifeline for students from conservative cultures.
Many students described the sexual education they received as disappointing and short-sighted, but the education was enlightening for several subgroups of students from ethnic or religious minorities who may be hearing this information for the first time.
In particular, Pound pointed out that Chinese-British students appreciated the classes because their families didn’t discuss sex at all, while young Muslim women found them a useful counterpoint to the “value-laden” and inaccurate sex education they got from home.
”You get some good information in these classes,” said one Muslim immigrant in a 2007 U.S. study. “All my mother would tell me, she would tell me like myths, hypothetical things, things that old ladies from generation to generation will tell her. Like Mom, that’s not even true!’’
Why we need sexual health education
Research shows that medically accurate sex education is linked to several healthy outcomes for students, including lower teen pregnancy rates and lower teen birth rates. Comprehensive HIV and STD prevention programs are linked to a student’s decision to delay the first time he or she has sex, a reduced number of sexual partners and increased condom use.
This has a real effect: While teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. have declined in recent years, they’re still highest among 21 countries with complete statistics, outpacing New Zealand, England and Wales.
Meanwhile, Switzerland and the Netherlands have the lowest rates of teen pregnancy and are often held up as models for both comprehensive and medically accurate sex education. The Netherlands starts age-appropriate sexuality education for kids as early as four years old, reports PBS, focusing on things like hugging and body awareness. By their teenage years, the Dutch are more likely than teens from other parts of the developed world to say that their first sexual experiences were “wanted and fun,” as opposed to most American teens, who wished they had waited longer to have sex for the first time.
A comprehensive approach
Chitra Panjabi, president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, was not involved in the research but said that we need to expand “comprehensive” sexuality education to include emotional, social and psychological aspects of sexual health.
“This study very clearly shows that the stigma and shame of sexuality is often a huge barrier to giving kids what they need to lead healthy lives,” Panjabi said. “Much of the education they do get is focused on disease prevention and public health outcomes, instead of a holistic education that promotes healthy sexuality and relationships.”
It’s clear that the U.S. still has a long way to go when it comes to delivering sex and relationship education to students ― but that teens from all over the world have very similar complaints about what they’re learning.