Dear Sex Ed,
It’s been a while. Long enough that I don’t think anyone would blame me for burying this and moving on with my life. But the fact of the matter is that we need to talk about how toxic you are before you hurt someone.
I was, by a more conservative definition, a fairly typical teenage girl: cisgender, conventionally attractive, well-behaved, studious, and romantically interested in boys despite being chronically dateless. You were an abstinence-only sexual education program at a public high school in southeast Michigan. We existed in a culture where teenage sexuality was both an expectation and a taboo: something that was a fact of life but needed to be avoided at all costs for health and moral reasons.
This was fine with both of us. Me, because I wasn’t interested in sex anyway, but wouldn’t realize for several more years that I was asexual. You, because that was just the way you did things. Your message was one of fear, of denying urges that you assumed we all had. That intercourse was only to be done with an opposite-sex, lawfully-wedded spouse for procreation. That sexual partners could be represented with chewed Oreo cookies spit into cups of water. That the consequences were pregnancy and disease that could not be reliably prevented except through complete abstention.
What you said seemed fine to me. You were just another science class that I needed to pay attention to and pass. I felt no urges to experiment with sexuality, and you were an authority telling me that I was right to think and feel that way. I didn’t come away thinking that I was broken or inferior: on the contrary, you made me believe that I was better than my peers for my sexual disinterest. I was special. I was “not like other girls,” who expressed desires that I could only mimic through using their language.
Do you realize how much damage you’re doing?
Not to me, necessarily. I was one of the lucky ones. I wasn’t hurt like I could have been. All I ended up doing was confusing a handful of potential partners. It would take me a few years to figure myself out, and I probably could have done it sooner with more information, but I can’t pretend that I was hurt because of you.
Do you know how many people you hurt? I can’t even tell you. The people who got pregnant or sick because they didn’t have the knowledge to safely explore. The people who did feel ashamed because they felt like some part of themselves was broken or wrong and they couldn’t help it. The people who didn’t have all of the privileges that I did and that would never have the opportunity to learn otherwise.
It’s true that we live in a sexual society. It’s true that it’s the expectation that teenagers will experiment sexually. It’s true that I had a very easy time wrapping my mind around the concept of denial and, by this logic, I’m proof of concept that teenagers can simply be told not to experiment and will agree unconditionally.
But you cannot work with those assumptions. You cannot present incomplete information and expect that a room full of teenagers won’t at least entertain the idea of filling in the blanks. The world won’t stop being sexual once we enter it, and we need to be able to have frank conversations about that in a safe environment. Teenagers cannot afford to be ignorant about sexuality, regardless of their orientation.
So, talk to them. Talk about different kinds of attraction and assure them that they’re all valid. Talk about safety, about contraception, about resources they can use to learn. Talk—really talk—about what does and doesn’t work and show them hard numbers to back it up. If they’re going to have sex, give them the knowledge they need to do it properly; if they’re like me and not going to, then the information will still be useful from a health and safety standpoint.
Make them talk, too, even if it’s anonymous. Have them talk about the expectations and challenges they face about their bodies and sexualities in a world where these ideals are bought and sold. Have them talk about their relationships to make sure they’re healthy. Have them talk about their questions so that they can get their answers from someone who knows the answers.
You can’t tell a room full of teenagers “no” and expect them to go with it. Learn how to talk to them, not for your sake, but for theirs. It would have helped me, and it probably would have prevented a lot of people I knew from being hurt. That’s what you told me you wanted: now prove it.
Gretchen Turonek is an asexual ciswoman that lives and writes in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She’s also a trumpet player, tabletop gamer, wife, and cat mom. She has a website and blog where she writes about writing and can also be found spending far too much time on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Instagram.