I grew up in conservative Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Almost every facet of my life worked to prevent me from getting a comprehensive, medically accurate sex education.
First, I attended private Christian schools from kindergarten all the way through college. The most “sex education” I got was from an anatomy class in 11th grade where the genders were separated for the teaching of sex organs (literally just the organs themselves, nothing about actual types of sexual intercourse), plus a handful of (once again, gender-separated) lectures throughout the years. For people assigned female at birth, these mostly included a laundry list of no-no’s for “modesty’s” sake (no short shorts, no spaghetti straps, no bras showing, etc.) and stern warnings and shaming about how we as women were at fault if we “made our brothers in Christ stumble” or sin. Sex was a mystery reserved only for heterosexual married people.
Second, my mom was and is very politically active for conservative causes: anti-choice, anti-pornography, anti-same-sex marriage, and of course anti-comprehensive sex education. So even if I had gone to public school, like my brothers did, I wouldn’t have gotten sex education. Not only did she pull my brothers out of those classes, but she went before the school board multiple times to advocate for abstinence-only sex education to be taught at their school. At home, I was never given the opportunity to openly discuss or ask questions about sex, even though my mom was a nurse. I had a vague idea of what menstruation meant, but I didn’t even know there was a difference between the vagina and the vulva until I was out of college.
Finally, I was repeatedly indoctrinated with abstinence-only messaging and education everywhere: at church, school, youth group, summer camp, and through “Christian” books, movies, and music. I was taught that virginity is a gift you give only to one other heterosexual person, and only after you’re married. All curiosity and desire was to be completely repressed until magically, on my wedding night, I was expected to flip a switch and be ready to pleasure my spouse. Masturbation was labeled a sin; any inkling of sexual desire was automatically lust. Sex did not exist for women to receive pleasure; if they did, fine, but that wasn’t the point. Pornography was openly protested, and we stopped shopping at stores that sold it. It was characterized as sinful, immoral, an “addiction” that ruins marriages, families, and reputations. Forget any talk about gay sex or marriage being anything other than an abomination. I didn’t know enough about sex to even guess how non-hetero people might practice it anyway.
Over time, between snippets of things I saw on TV, conversations with friends, and eventually playing sports and working with peers who weren’t in the bubble I was, I was able to piece together how hetero sex generally worked. But it wasn’t the last 10 or so years, living near Washington DC, fully deconstructing from my fundamentalist upbringing, that I started to actively seek out comprehensive, inclusive sex education for myself.
My goal now, besides continuing to educate myself, is to break the cycle of silence, shame, and stigma around sex with my son. He’s only 4, but we use scientifically accurate terminology for all body parts in our household. We are insistent about enthusiastic consent for touching, hugging, tickling, etc., and he is allowed to tell us (and others) no. We have LGBTQ and nonbinary friends and couples in our lives. We read about and discuss what it means to be trans. When he’s ready, we’ll discuss sex at whatever level of detail he shows an interest in. When he’s approaching puberty, I plan to enroll our family in workshops to have open discussions and destigmatize conversations about changing bodies, desires, and how to progress safely with partners.
Abstinence-only education ends with me.