“…the nearly $2 billion spent on abstinence only education over the past quarter-century may as well have been set on fire…”  Peggy Orenstein

Sexual health is a conversation that has been subverted for far too long. The conversations that we avoid and push underground become tainted with our own darkness and the longer that they remain out of reach, the more distorted they become. Sexual hygiene depends on our capacity to talk about our sexual needs, desires and overall health concerns. We are innately sexual beings, and our sexual needs and identity is second only to our basic needs of survival. Below are three conversation starters that we must take up to replace the collective shame and fear about our sexual selves with empowerment and pleasure.

How Sexual Education Became Porn

In the absence of real education human beings will seek out answers to their burning questions and nowhere is this more true than for the profound mystery of who we are as sexual beings. We have set ourselves back not only the quarter of a century that was lost to any true and reliable information, but by advocating sexual education to a “just say no” insanity, we have effectively made pornography the go to source for information about being sexual. Currently less than half of all high schools and a fifth of middles schools  mandate or teach the 16 basic components of CDC standard sexual education curriculum. Only 13 states require sex education to be medically accurate. The degree to which we have lost the battle when it comes to raising healthy sexually active adults goes far beyond their failures in communicating about communicable diseases, body parts or physical safety. Into the enforced silence and emptiness of abstinence, the pornographic industry has exploded in both sheer bandwidth and outrageous popularity. Abstinence only education is responsible at least in part for creating a normalized culture of hookups that gorges on pornography as a model for sexual behavior.

Why STDs Are on the Rise

For the first time since 2006, the incidence of STDs including chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis is on the rise.   The increase is due in part to more women choosing more permanent contraceptive methods like IUDs, which provide protection against pregnancy but do nothing for STD’s. Even with increased frequency of sex with strangers through apps like Tinder and Grindr, condom use is down because ironically, it is easier to have sex with someone you barely know than it is to have a conversation about sexual protection.  

Another significant factor in the increased incidence of STDs is the rampant undiagnosed incidence of Bacterial Vaginosis impacting upwards of 40% of all women. Eighty four percent of women don’t recognize the symptoms of Bacterial Vaginosis which is like a low grade sore throat, although in the vagina, you don’t have the nerve endings to sense the imbalance of bad bacteria. Most often when BV is detected, it is as an off smell, or bad odor. Sometimes there is pain or itching which is why it is commonly confused with Candida.   Women with undiagnosed BV are immunologically compromised as their natural protective lactobacilli are overrun with bad bacteria. Also largely unknown is that women with BV are 60% more susceptible to the serious STDs that are on the rise and are three times as likely to transmit these diseases to their partners.

And last, because sex education is both so rare and incomplete, many young women wrongly believe that many prevalent STDs are both something that happens to other people and no big deal. Convinced that an STD is easily treatable, they would rather risk a disease with far reaching consequences than the discomfort of having the sex talk with their partner of the moment.

Where Pleasure is Unknown, so is Consent

In a 2010 Journal of Sexual Medicine study researchers found that only 1/3 of teenage girls masturbated regularly and fewer than half have even tried even once. In the early childhood years when we learn who we are boys have their body parts named, while the female anatomy is often left unnamed, literally unspeakable.   Even the most comprehensive sexual education only provide an overview of the internal pelvic organs with no mention of labia or the complex clitoral system. While a boy’s education is characterized in terms of erections, ejaculation and high powered sex drive, a girl’s education is defined by menstrual cycles and unwanted pregnancy. Even with changing sexual behaviors which at once increased the popularity of oral sex while also demoting it to not the real thing, and now adding the 5th base of anal sex which is the new competition for young men. Seventy percent of women reported pain in sex when anal is included but still blamed themselves for not being about to relax. Young women are still using their partner’s physical pleasure as the yardstick for their own satisfaction. Not so for young American men, they measure their satisfaction by their own orgasm.

How can young women know where the line of consent is when they have no experience or even expectation of their own pleasure? If everything is for their partner’s pleasure and even conversations about contraceptive and disease prevention are too uncomfortable to be had, how do we teach consent? To the degree that we shame our sexuality into hiding, and the curious are lead by fictitious and often hurtful imagery of human sexuality, consensual sexual encounters are way out of reach.    

So let’s start talking today and resurrect the beauty, wonder and mystery of our sexuality. Healing our sexual selves will set off a chain reaction that leads to most everything else that is broken.