What kind of sex education did you have, if you had any at all? I’m always interested in hearing about people’s experiences of sex education in school, but whatever your experiences have been, I can bet that it was not as helpful as it could have been.
I went to a comprehensive school in South Wales, and I remember very little about the sex education classes we had. I know that we had a biology class with those illustrations of bodies chopped in half so you could see the organs inside. I also remember a class where we had to put a condom on a banana, and we were given great quantities of dental dams, but with no instructions, so I was a bit perplexed as to how to use those.
The other question is, where did you really get your sex education? Just last semester, I was teaching the new Netflix series, Sex Education, to my students, and they had much to say about the plot-line: how a teenage boy becomes a sex therapist like his mother, because the students at his school are so desperate to find some reliable information and help.
The consensus is that most people these days find their information on the internet, which as in most things with the web, can be good or can be bad. Meanwhile many sex education programs in the US and UK are deeply lacking. It is still common in some schools for there to be no sex education about LGBTQ+ issues, there is very little education about consent, and sexual shaming is common.
Educators in America still use dubious metaphors to teach that sex is shameful.
“Imagine that you are this piece of gum, and every time you have sex, you are being chewed in someone’s mouth. Would you want to have sex with a chewed up piece of gum?”
“Imagine that you are a bit of sellotape. Whenever you have sex, you are stuck to someone’s arm. Have sex enough times, and you won’t be sticky anymore.”
These kinds of shaming tactics still happen in sex education programs in America. There is nothing about pleasure, nothing about sex as a meaningful or complex thing, very little beyond the mechanics of heterosexual sex, and very little about enthusiastic consent being essential for any ethical sexual relationship.
It was a huge pleasure, then, to host Jonathan Branfman on the podcast Sinister Myth. Until recently Jonathan was a PhD researcher at the Ohio State University, but recently won his first academic job at William & Mary university. Jonathan was part of a group of graduate students at OSU who set up a great sex education program at the university. It has been praised by many of my students for being factual, informative, and funny. You can also see Jonathan’s TEDx Talk here.
Jonathan has also written a great book for kids – not about sex ed but a guide to understanding “gender, love, and family” – which I heartily recommend, and have read to my own kids. It’s called You Be You! and it is illustrated by Julie Benbassat. If you ever wanted a book to help kids understand concepts like what it means to be gay or straight, cisgender or trans, including a discussion of nonbinary identity, or to explain gender norms, this book is very helpful. Ultimately, it tells children that whoever they are, they are unique, important, and loved.
Interviewed by Brendan Walsh, Jonathan poses many thought-provoking questions, including comments about the dubious origins of sex education programs in America, and the problem of access for example to the birth control pill, or PrEP and PEP. He also talks about the lack of sex education for LGBTQ+ youth, and about the need to teach about consent, especially when gender stereotypes make it romantic to disregard the issue of consent.