Abstinence. That’s the advice given in the two-week sex ed program offered at my private Catholic middle school, St. Peter Prince of the Apostles. The program was called Worth the Wait, and it was only offered to fifth graders. Students had to get their parents to sign a waiver saying it was OK to participate in that segment of our health class. Those whose parents didn’t want their children to learn about sex sat in on a physical education class that was scheduled at the same time.
In class, we sat by gender; girls in a group at the front, boys at the back. Our teacher didn’t want us to look at one another as we spoke about penises and vaginas. If at any point we laughed or referred to genitals as anything but their scientific names, our teacher wrote us up.
In the two-week segment, we didn’t talk about much sex. Mostly abstinence and the sinfulness of premarital intercourse. We were told not to use condoms because we shouldn’t be having sex at all. “Abstinence is always 100 percent effective.”
We talked about periods, but before we started that brief segment, the teacher let the boys in the class know that if at any point they felt uncomfortable talking about menstruation, they could leave. The girls, however, needed to participate in this part. One of my friends, who has the weakest stomach in the world, felt queasy as we talked about blood and cramps. She asked to leave but was told she couldn’t. When she fainted, our teacher scolded her for being overly dramatic.
We had to memorize all the parts of the penis. Just the penis. Do you know where the vas deferens is? Me neither. At the time, I could label all parts of the penis, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I don’t think I learned circumcision was a thing until high school.
Then I went to Incarnate Word High School, a private, parochial all-girls school, where I received no sex ed. In a one-semester health class, we spoke only of the harms of drugs and alcohol.
The one instance of a sex-related section on the syllabi didn’t appear until my junior year. Along with the core classes we were required to take — math, science, history, English, foreign language — we were also required to take a religion class. My junior year, that religion class was called Christian Justice and was centered on the ethics and morals of Christian faiths.
The course touched on a bunch of things — the death penalty, cheap labor, euthanasia — all of which were taught over the course of a week. The sex-related segment of the course was a brief two-day discussion about abortion. The first class, we discussed how abstinence is the only 100 percent effective birth control. The second class, we were shown ‘after’ pictures of the surgeries, including the fetuses involved.
High school was the first time I went to a gynecologist, the first time I got on birth control, the first time I had sex. I didn’t know my options, and I didn’t know where to start. I rarely kept track of my period, and I didn’t know that lube is probably never a bad idea. I watched enough TV to know you should ask someone if they’re clean before sleeping with them, and I’d seen enough rom-coms to know I should consider going on the pill when I started having sex.
If it weren’t for Nora Ephron, Google and my mom, I don’t know where I’d be in terms of sex ed. Memorization of penis anatomy and photos of abortions aside, there is one thing I learned about sex in school: Abstinence is 100 percent effective in avoiding pregnancy.