The Good Old Days: When Sex Ed Wasn’t Trying to Be Bad

Amanda Marcotte

The cobbled-together, patchwork sex ed I got at my West Texas high school in the 1990s was better than the outright lies abstinence-only programs push.

I went to high school in a small West Texas town in the
mid-90s, at the height of social acceptance of comprehensive sex education.  That height was still incredibly low, and especially so in small West Texas
towns.  In an atmosphere like ours, all
it takes is one religious nut parent to lose her mind over some perceived
slight to her worldview for chaos, in the form of wingnut screeching, reigns upon the
high school.  Few will have the guts to
stand up to the complainant, because then you’re next on the list to have your reputation smeared by the anxiety-ridden parent.  I’ve seen my town sucked into controversy because a teacher assigned a modern novel with a character who
uses a curse word.  (Obviously, English
class is a time for only 100% wholesome activities, like the time I heard a
group of boys tease a female classmate by talking about their masturbation
habits in English class.)  We didn’t read
the sexy parts of any books assigned, and these boys’ behavior proves that by
simply pretending sex doesn’t exist, you can make sure that teenagers will
never figure it out.

That said, the mid-90s were a heady time, and the idea that
maybe it would be smart for kids who are having sex to use birth control did make
its way past the force field established around the school by fundamentalist
Christians with too much time on their hands.  
My 10th grade health class was supposed to cover sex ed,
according to the standards set by the state school board, but somehow our
teacher never got around to it, because we spent so much time talking about how
to brush your teeth and why you should wash your hands after you go to the
bathroom.  But despite this glaring
omission, we did get some kinds of sex ed through a patchwork of half-hearted
attempts by the school administration, usually in direct response to the
horrible sexual health outcomes that ravaged our town.

RELATED VIDEO: A mother and her daughter talk about the lack of a coherent sex ed policy in Florida’s public schools and experts in the sex education field are interviewed.

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We got the period talk in the 7th grade in
health class.  Our teacher, after
explaining menstruation and the mechanics of sexual intercourse, paused and
added that if you take the pill, you might want to know you have to take it
every day or else it won’t work.  Useful
information, if far from comprehensive. 
A few years later in high school, a syphilis outbreak in our town that
apparently touched some high school students led the administration to round up
every student and force us to watch a slideshow of pictures of people who had
let STDs go for years without getting any treatment, often until they had
scarred their genitals past the point of recognition.  This was presented as an inevitable outcome
of having sex. We were not told about using condoms for prevention or that
if you got tested frequently, doctors could catch and cure many of these diseases early. The rumor we
all heard–that you catch syphilis from sex with barnyard animals–was not

One year, the high teenage pregnancy rate got to the school
administration, and school administrators rounded up all female students and had a
doctor explain contraception to us.  He
explained what most of us already knew about the birth control pill and
condoms.  We sat there in silence, our
main question unasked and unanswerable–how do we get these things in a small
town without everyone knowing?  How do
you buy a packet of condoms without your parents finding out?  The only girls we knew who got the pill
convinced their parents that their menstrual problems demanded it.  Was there any other way?  We didn’t know, and the school administration
gave up trying to teach contraception after that.  

I bring up this long history to point out that these were,
sadly, the good old days. As
reported earlier here at Rewire
, the Texas Freedom Network, in
conjunction with researchers from Texas State University, have finished a
thorough examination of all but a handful of school districts in Texas and
found that 94% of school districts are abstinence-only and 2% have no education
at all.   I asked TFN about my old high school, and they
confirmed that the district had embraced abstinence-only.  The old, patched-up, half-hearted, usually
non-existent sex ed we got would have been better, though–at least they
didn’t lie to us or pretend that a choice (abstaining until marriage) that only
5% of Americans make is the expected standard and that the rest of us were
doomed to a life of depression, suicide, disease, and inability to love.  Now you have a situation where kids who are
already parents are being marched through ludicrous role-playing skits about
saying no to sex.  The old way was bad,
but mostly they stuck to the "First, do no harm" principle, which is better
than the current method of actively deceiving young people in the hopes that
they will skip condom use and get pregnant or catch an STD as punishment. 

You can read
the full report at TFN
.  No matter
how often you read hair-curling stories about how abstinence-only non-educators
will blatantly lie to students, it’s still shocking.  The line between trying to scare kids away
from sex and sadistically trying to set them up to get STDs is crossed routinely in many of
these programs.  

What makes important to people who live
outside of Texas is this–textbook publishers use Texas curricula as the national
standard, because Texas is the largest purchaser of textbooks in the
country.  So even if your state has
different standards, they’re still probably using Texas textbooks.  In fact, the religious right openly set out
to make abstinence-only the standard in Texas, because they knew if they
got Texas, they got the nation.
tempting as it might be for people in blue states to write off my state as a
lost cause, I’m afraid it just doesn’t work that way.  Like it or not, what happens in Texas happens
to all Americans, and this report should be read with that in mind.

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