Stigma Impairs Functional Sexual Education

One of my favourite sexual education resources for teens and young adults is Scarleteen, and not just because it’s extremely comprehensive and very inclusive (though it is both of those things). It’s also because the site assumes, straight up and without comment, that teens have sex. That might seem like sort of an odd thing to celebrate in a sexual education resource (after all, such resources are supposed to be designed for people who have sex, right?), but I’m perennially surprised by the number of resources that stigmatise teen sexuality before they’ll provide any useful educational material, thus radically undermining their own work.

In the presentation of teen sexuality, Scarleteen does what few resources seem to be able to do well: it acknowledges that teens have sex, indicates that there’s nothing wrong with this, and provides nonbiased information to help teens make the most empowered choices. Heather Corinna and her fabulous crew don’t assume that all teens have sex or that all sex is good — but they do give teens credit when it comes to being independent, active people who don’t deserve to be isolated or told to go sit in the corner while adults lecture them.

Scarleteen doesn’t pass judgement on whether you’re having sex or not, or what kind of sex you’re having. The focus is on providing information about having safer sex, and dealing with what happens when things go wrong — again, presented in a way that isn’t judgmental. It’s not ‘so you’ve got herpes now, you dirty slut,’ but ‘hey, herpes happens.’ This doesn’t just create a much more functional and enjoyable learning environment for readers (and Scarleteen, despite the name, isn’t just for teens — I totally use it as a resource at times myself!), but it also builds a circle of trust, creating a more comfortable, secure relationship that allows readers to speak out, ask questions, and be taken seriously.

Sexual education in this country is deeply flawed. It typically starts too late, and it’s also very heavy on the stigma. Rather than presenting simple factual information in an inclusive environment, it starts out by indicating that teen sex is Not Okay and proceeds from there — the goal often seems to be shaming teens who have sex and telling them that they’re doing something wrong. With that as a starter message, teens tend to tune out (as would people of any age being told that what they’re doing with their bodies is wrong) so they miss out on vital information. Assuming, of course, that they’re not trapped in a terrible abstinence-only sexual education program that does absolutely nothing to provide teens with information about safely reducing the risk of STIs and pregnancy.

This doesn’t just deprive teens of needed information presented in class. It understandably makes them shy when it comes to asking questions, including anonymously — I can’t be the only one who remembers how the ‘anonymous’ question box at the back of the sex ed classroom became a bit of a joke almost immediately. We all knew that we weren’t supposed to be having sex, so who would admit to having it? For that matter, who would admit to something going wrong, something that might require medical attention, or something that might benefit from counseling and outreach? No one wanted to be the one to leave a note in that box to ask for help, because we all feared the consequences.

Would we be shamed in front of the class? Would an adult figure out who we were and punish us? (In a tiny class in a small school where all the teachers obviously knew our handwriting, it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that the anonymous drop box couldn’t possibly be very anonymous.) Would people figure out who we were from context and then slut shame us (if we were perceived as girls) or celebrate us (if we were perceived as boys)? Would people start a ring of gossip about who was and wasn’t having sex, who was ‘easy’? These weren’t just messages imparted by the culture around us and its attitudes about teen sexuality, but also the atmosphere of shaming and stigma in the class itself: sex is wrong when you’re a teenager, don’t do it.

Eager for the approval of the adults around us no matter how much we wanted to claim to be above it all, of course none of us wanted to admit to being sexual. We certainly wouldn’t have admitted to medical problems that might have been warning signs of STIs or pregnancies. We wouldn’t have sought help for abusive relationships or asked for help in the aftermath of rapes — because sex was bad and we shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place, and these things were just punishments for being sexually active teens.

The fact that administrators of sexual education programmes still don’t understand how widespread the stigmatisation of sexually active teens is, and how damaging it is, is deeply upsetting and troubling. When I interact with sexually active teens, I’m constantly reminded that the bulk of sexual education is shame based: you shouldn’t be doing this, but if you are, here is some grudging advice.

Why shouldn’t we be celebrating sexuality? Talking about good and bad sex? Helping teens (or people of any age who are exploring their sexuality) learn to own their bodies and exert autonomy over them? Why can’t we talk about how stigma is bullshit and people should never be ashamed of having sex, of contracting STIs, of getting pregnant unintentionally? Why does sexuality have to be so damn ugly and terrifying and wrong for so much of this society?

Photo: I’m Blue for You, Courtney Carmody, Flickr.