I have the strangest memories from sex-ed in high school.
I grew up in the piedmont of North Carolina, in a very white, affluent suburb. It was a small suburb with a dozen churches, where almost everyone belonged and regularly attended church. At the church I grew up in, we never spoke about sex per se, but it was understood that one waited until marriage. My family definitely attended the most liberal church in town. We had a lesbian couple in the flock. GASP! Still… it was still very conservative and became more so over the 90s and, I hear, into the 2000s. My town is very close to the county line, and to this day there are very active KKK in the next county (and, hey, maybe in my hometown, too, but that sort of thing wasn’t talked about in “polite society.”)
For high school sex-ed, we had the mandated abstinence-only curriculum. They didn’t call it that of course. It was just sex ed as if there were no other way to teach it. Boys and girls were separated for classes. The lessons we learned were based around the different STDs and how awful the symptoms looked like (the scariest pics ever). Sure they mentioned that some could be treated, but the focus was on the absolutely horrific consequences of having pre-marital sex. Obviously, HIV was a focus, too. The AIDS scare in the 90s was reinforced in our classroom.
We used to watch films (old-school ones on the projector–yeah, how out of date were those?!) as well as videos, which we watched on the tv (rolled in on that cart!). I recall a video of a young, pretty blond girl talking about how she had made a huge mistake with her life by having sex before she was married. It had led her down a path to drug abuse and she had gotten pregnant and had HIV. Then the camera zoomed out from her face, and you see her holding a baby, given the skin-tone presumably a baby with a black father. Presumably a “crack-baby,” which seemed to be only part of the terrible outcome of this former A-student of middle class upbringing. Part of me has always had doubt about this memory–it seems so ludicrous that this would be a real video, but I think that it was. I honestly think that this was a video we were shown. I remember laughing at it after school with my best friend because it seemed over-the-top. (I don’t know if other kids laughed. I kind of doubt it. My friend and I were weird nerds. Her parents were artists who had moved to the South from Chicago, and my very Southern parents are political outcasts in our community. My dad, until recently, would canvas African-American neighbourhoods in the city, helping people register to vote, and my mom worked as a teacher with some of the most marginalized folks in the city. I’m sure our families’ racial viewpoints helped us understand that that video was all sorts of wrong. And I also think that that’s why it’s not a false memory. I so clearly recall remembering it being ridiculous. Mind you, the part that seemed ridiculous was the race part. The part where pre-marital sex ruins your life? Seemed legit.)
In terms of how this affected me? Well, it took me a looooong time to get that I was queer. I think that’s because I didn’t know that that was an identity, and even with knowing that there were “real-life lesbians” (haha) in this world because of my church, they were older (one was in her 60s). I didn’t really interact with them other than they were my elders, and, as such, childhood me was taught to to be polite and respect them. In terms of the STD part, I maintain a fear (now mostly subsided that I am with one partner) of HIV. It’s, frankly ridiculous, and I definitely practiced safe sex when single but still feared catching something. And I mean fear in the horrible anxiety disorder sense. I’m pretty pissed that that’s what I learned in school: that sex is scary and dangerous if it’s not in a marriage.