Great Sexpectations: Disparities in Sex Education and Freshman Year

By Anna Grace Lee

At Speak About It!, an activist-performance that seeks to educate students and prevent sexual violence, hundreds of freshmen sat in Bailey Hall listening to sex-themed music before the show. I looked out at my new classmates—some on their phones, some talking to people in their rows, others sitting silently. In the performance, the actors talked candidly about sex and “hooking up” and illustrated situations through monologues and college-themed vignettes. It was engaging, but as I watched rows of people turn to one another and laugh, there was an overwhelming sense of performance—not on stage, but in the audience. I kept wondering how much information was actually getting through, and how anyone could understand the complexities of consent when they didn’t know all that much about sex in the first place. How can you learn when you want to seem like you already know everything?

During orientation and throughout the rest of college, there’s a burden weighing on many students: the “obviously-we’re-all-bangin’-24/7” burden. And with it comes the assumption that everybody knows what’s up—meaning there are some things that you must know if you’re a freshman in college, like the fact that you can get STDs from oral sex, etc. But that’s the thing: everybody’s definition of “what’s up” is different. One of the great things about Cornell is its diversity—but when it comes to sex, we seem to forget that we all come from different places.

I received my formative sex education at an Episcopal school in the East Village in New York City. My sex education stood out as a rigidly outdated and Christian ordeal in the middle of a very liberated neighborhood—the place that inspired Rent and home to such staples as St. Mark’s Place and the Coyote Ugly Saloon. While in some apartment down the block, somebody was taking their clothes off, twenty uniformed 13-year-olds sat in a classroom, listening to the Head of School talk about sex.

sex ed art.png
Art by Zach Rouse

“We think sex is good,” I remember our principal saying, catching everyone off guard, like he knew we were expecting him to tell us to abstain or die. He continued: “Sex is good. When it’s in a long-term, loving, monogamous relationship.” This phrase, “Long-term, loving, monogamous relationship,” and the monotone in which he delivered it, has stuck with me. I decided to see if any of my friends had similar experiences with their sex education.

At dinner one night, I asked everyone at the table what their sex education was like. My friends offered stories of their education at public and private schools in New York City:

HB:We played a game where we all started with a single color of M&M’s… and you trade them, and at the end you have all the different colors of M&M’s and each color corresponds to a different STD, so it’s like, when you have sex with someone, you’re getting all the STDs from all the people that they’ve ever had sex with.”

“It’s like Pokémon,” a boy at our table interjects.

HB:You had to be okay with having sex with all the people that they had had sex with…we’re in sixth grade, and they’re telling [us] [we] need to be considering who [our] partners are. They weren’t overtly telling you not to have sex, but you’re a kid so they’re taking your super malleable ideas of what sex is and [exploiting that].”

Late one night in my friend Mason’s room, I asked Mason, Maya, and Helena to tell me more about their sex education. Maya, who grew up in Brooklyn, said she never actually had sex ed in school:

AL: “At middle school? Was it a religious school? Public? And there was no health class?”

MM: “I feel like it’s difficult to believe, but I have never had a sex education class… the only sex ed I can remember anyone actually giving me was my parents gave me an American Girl book about my body.”

AL: “The Care and Keeping of You?”

MM: “Yeah. And it mentioned sex once. And then I was like, ‘Oh, sex!’ and then I think I probably like, Googled it… My dad’s a teacher, and so I always would go to the library at his school and they had a bunch of sex ed books and I’d take out the books and just never return them.”

AL: “So you stole the sex books from the library?”

MM: “Yeah, I pretty much stole my sex education.”

Mason is baffled. She then gives an account of the most positive (and creative) sex education I’ve ever heard.

ML: “My sex ed in middle school was so extensive… [They taught me] I could have sex in the apocalypse with Saran Wrap and a rubber band and I’d be totally safe!”

AL: “Are you serious?”

ML: “Yeah! They showed us how to make condoms and stuff if you didn’t have a condom, but then they were like, ‘This is not an effective method,’ and they had a question box and they had everyone put questions in, and the questions were like, ‘What is a rainbow party?’ so this teacher had to be like, ‘Well, that’s when everyone gets a different type of lipstick…’ I remember my health teacher putting her fist into a condom like, ‘Don’t let them tell you it’s too small!’”

Throughout my interview process, I was most struck by the class activities I heard about. A girl named Suzy in my Intro to Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies class told me that when she was in seventh grade, the health teacher at her New York public school instructed the students to sign letters to themselves pledging abstinence until marriage. I heard several variations on the M&M’s game: an activity in which students chewed gum, spit it into a cup of water, and then one student was asked to drink it; a game in which one student put glitter on her hands and then everyone shook hands, so at the end everybody had glittery hands. The goal of these games, much like many sex education programs in the United States, is to warn rather than to inform.

Many of us as middle schoolers and high schoolers didn’t have access to information from reliable sources. Many of us were taught abstinence-only sex education while others didn’t have formal sex education at all, perhaps because the majority of states don’t mandate that it be taught in schools. What gets lost in the traditional narrative of sex education is the knowledge of how to make sex safe, fun, and pleasurable—the way it should be. Large turnouts at sex-positive educational events like I Love Female Orgasm show that students are looking for the kind of information they didn’t get before coming to college. At the I Love Female Orgasm event, I saw boys in the row behind me taking three full pages of notes, ready to take what they learned into the world (and the bedroom). If the same transparency and openness to learning applied to freshman learning about sex and consent, we’d all be meeting each other on a more equal playing field, so we could play the field—and feel safe and happy while doing it.

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