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How does the U.S.’s fear-based sex education stack up against sex education that emphasizes pleasure?

Throughout her confirmation hearings, Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett has refused to say whether she agrees with previous Supreme Court rulings over birth control and LGBTQ rights, according to Business Insider. Precedents protecting people’s freedom to control their own bodies is once again a Supreme Court issue, but the conversation about sex starts much earlier when adolescents have their first sex education class.

U.S. schools that choose to educate teenagers about sex (many don’t) use a variety of sex education strategies, ranging from abstinence-only education to comprehensive sex education. However, the vast majority have something in common — they focus on the negative aspects of sex, particularly the possibilities of pregnancy and STDs. Teachers share statistics with young people about these dangers in an attempt to teach them how to have sex safely or, oftentimes, sway them away from sex entirely.

Unlike abstinence-based education, which only offers one method of protection, the typical alternative program educates teenagers about other methods of birth control, but will often still over-emphasize the negative consequences of sexual behavior. Learning about safe sex practices is important but focusing only on the negatives can lead to anxiety and shame.

Sex education doesn’t have to be focused on the risks alone. In the Netherlands, sex education is taught universally, with a focus on positive, healthy experiences. Students as young as 5 years old are taught about the parts of the body and encouraged to think about what makes their body feel good or bad in age-appropriate ways, including how they feel when they take a bath.

As they get older, Dutch children continue to learn about deriving pleasure from their bodies. This method teaches consent and healthy relationship communication patterns. Students are empowered by comprehensive sex education and subsequently feel less shame or anxiety as they have their first experiences. This approach seems to have been effective — adolescents in the Netherlands have sex later, use birth control more than any other nation and have overwhelmingly positive first sexual experiences, according to a Duke article.

Over the past two decades, there has been a push and pull between strengthening and diminishing sex education in America. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the number of schools offering sex education declined between 2000 and 2014. Only 55% of male students and 60% of female students received instruction on birth control. Fewer than 7% of queer students reported having sexual health classes that included positive representation of LGBTQ topics. Additionally, 71% of men described their first sexual experience as wanted while only 45%  of young women did. Among men, 25% had mixed feelings about their first sexual experience, while 51% of women did. When compared to the system of sex education in the Netherlands, America does not seem to be holding up.

Fear-based education has long term effects on attitudes toward sex. In middle school health, my class was taught about the spread of STIs through a game I still remember. We went around the class and interacted with various students, keeping track of who we “interacted with” (aka had sex with). Then the teacher randomly assigned a few students to have an STI. The activity was supposed to show how easy it would be to contract an infection if you had multiple partners; it was meant to explain the importance of getting tested regularly. While I can see how that knowledge is important for students, an activity like this could also unconsciously create anxiety about having sex.

The negative tone of these classes can carry over into adulthood. As college students, young women are encouraged to diminish their sexual desires and maintain a low “body count.” The effects of fear-based sex education are apparent in these beliefs. We learned about various methods to prevent the unwanted aspects of sex but did not talk about the pleasure and beauty of mutual desire.

Engaging in sex should be reciprocal and consensual — not transactional. There is too much toxic language surrounding sex and consent in popular culture, through which people are thought to “owe” one another sex, or assigned feelings of “wanting it” after the fact. Wearing revealing clothing or being treated to dinner is not a substitute for consent. We should prioritize language about mutual desire and pleasure while making clear that consent is essential.

Too many Americans don’t have the vocabulary to talk about sex without talking about its dangers, because the American sex education system provides no such tools. With pleasure-focused language regarding sex, we can talk about desire and healthy communication.

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