By Whitney Gray
My experience with sexual education growing up was very limited. If anything, my attitude toward sex ed was, “I know what sex is, so what else do I need to know?”
My middle school inserted sex education into our required health class, and sent a letter home letting parents know they could opt their children out. The class was essentially a glaring red warning sign against sexual activity. We consumed daily images with graphic, oozing examples of sexually transmitted diseases; PowerPoint slides on pregnancy risks and how it ruins your life and social standing; and a terrifying birth video that’d make anyone scared to have sex. We didn’t get practical information on how to use condoms; in fact, our teacher gave almost no information about any form of contraception.
At that time, I was clueless about what defined sexual activity or even how to take care of my body. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I learned that women could masturbate — and only because I was watching Oprah and a sexologist was on her show.
I was lucky because my mother was willing to talk about anything and everything concerning sex, but I was often too embarrassed and ashamed to ask her anything. Unfortunately, others were way less open to female sexuality. When I shared my newfound information about masturbation with a friend, she responded, “Ew, you don’t actually do that right? That’s a guy thing.”
The impact of comments like that was compounded by constant praise from female influences in my life for being a virgin and for not being “fast” like other girls, and by male peers saying abstinence is only for girls. It was compounded by how a woman having sex is called “losing it” or “giving it up.” It is compounded by society echoing these sentiments by simultaneously selling women’s sexuality and condemning women for being open about it.
Being a young girl growing up in a conservative space, the message from many of my peers and adults was simple: keep your legs closed, don’t you dare get pregnant, and don’t talk about sex—it’s unladylike.
An experience in college saved my perception of sexuality and womanhood. Many young adults can tell creative stories about their college sex life. From creaking dorm beds squealing through our paper-thin walls, to friends “sexiled” out of their own rooms, it’s a running joke that college is a time for sexual exploration. Meanwhile, I barely acknowledged sex even existed. When my friend Melissa invited me to see “The Vagina Monologues” my sophomore year, I cringed. I couldn’t imagine sitting in our school theater watching a bunch of young women talk about vaginas, but I was simultaneously fascinated. After brushing off a hint of disgust from other friends who declined my invitation to the show, I decided to just go with Melissa.
To me, sex was raunchy, shameful, and forbidden, but the young women on stage portrayed a myriad of stories about sex that were familiar, strange, or even relieving. The play began with one of my best friends wearing a tight dress and high pumps, acting out a middle-aged woman speaking loudly and frankly about shaving “down there.” She talked about bumps and itchiness, her husband’s desires, and her own discomfort. I laughed the shaky, agitated laugh I have when I’m uncomfortable, slouching in my seat like I wanted to slink away from anyone’s sight.
But, as the play went on, my discomfort dissolved and my laughter became genuine. I was in hysterics when a characters screamed the “c” word repeatedly. Moments later, the room’s mood changed and I found myself weeping on Melissa’s shoulder when listening to stories of abuse. The play delved into heartbreaking stories of girls raped and tormented in Bosnia and girls raped and abused by a family member, date, or stranger. The play danced between themes of violation and pain, to embarrassment, to liberation, to pleasure, to ecstasy. Women waxed poetic about orgasms, tampons, smells, and hair. And, like desperately needed exposure therapy, that night I heard the word “vagina” so often I wasn’t embarrassed anymore.
That night, I learned the many ways sex can be good and ways it’s awful. I learned that vaginal hygiene doesn’t require you to flush with douches and rosy-scented potions. I learned other women are often embarrassed about how their bodies look, or smell, or feel—despite vaginas’ natural functions and variances in appearances. This embarrassment led them not to ask questions, ignore their bodies, and suppress their discomfort.
In one night, I learned that I wasn’t alone when I was taught to fear my body and my sexuality. Shame is a weapon against us. How can we protect our sexual and reproductive health if we can’t talk about sex, or even our bodies’ basic physiological functions, which we must be aware of to discern whether we’re healthy or not? What good did my sexual education do if it failed to teach all forms of sexual activity, how to protect ourselves, about consent and respect, how our sex organs function, and what’s normal?
When sex education only teaches fear and consequences, young people are more likely to either engage in reckless behavior out of ignorance or ignore their sexual health out of embarrassment.
I wasn’t magically cured of my issues that night. I had a great conversation about masturbation, sex, and sex education with Melissa, which was a miracle in and of itself. We were naturally quiet, nerdy, and awkward. We spoke in hushed voices even though no one was around, and never brought it up after that. But, that night and that conversation sparked an interest. I started to do my own research. I finally had conversations about sex with my mom she’d always wanted us to have. And even though I’m still reserved with my sex life, it’s an informed decision I made myself, instead of one chosen out of guilt. And, I’ve learned to respect the choices of the women around me.
I’m not always perfect, but today I am emboldened with the knowledge I need to protect my sexual health and honor my sexuality and bodily autonomy. I have the knowledge I need to help my future daughter or son, and to fight for other women to have the same. I am empowered.
Whitney Gray graduated from Georgia College and State University and currently works as a marketing coordinator at a small publishing company. She was a communications intern at the NWHN for the Fall 2016 term.
Article originally published in the May/June 2017 Women’s Health Activist Newsletter