A Generation Scarred By Scary Sex Ed

The message I got from sex ed was this: sex will kill you. Turns out I wasn't alone. And such scare tactics may not be effective.

As I've mentioned, I wasn't thrilled with the sex education I got in school. To my mind, it really didn't address how to have a healthy sex life. Instead, it implied that any sex life was by definition unhealthy — and while different forms of contraception and protection were mentioned, I remember far more airtime being devoted to photos of advanced syphilis infections. This made my early years of (protected, contracepted) sex fraught with anxiety, as I was doing something Bad that leads to Death.

I kind of thought I was alone in this — it's not hard to make me anxious, after all — but in separate conversations, two of my high school classmates recently revealed that they'd been scared shitless by our sex ed. Some people might say this is a good thing, that kids should be scared to keep them away from risky behavior. And I fully agree that teens need to know the risks of STIs and pregnancy. But at the same time, I think schools can teach them about these risks without demonizing sexuality itself. A sex-ed approach that exclusively focuses on scare tactics can hamper people's enjoyment even of safer sex, and it can also be very judgmental towards people who do have STIs or unintended pregnancies (ie. "don't end up like that girl"). It can even have the opposite of its intended effect — kids who learn that sex always leads to disease may not take appropriate steps to protect themselves.

Scaring people is a time-honored education strategy, whether that means putting a bloody face on a poster to keep people from drinking or walking kids through a prison to keep them from stealing. But at least in the latter case, it may not be all that effective — a recent study found that "Scared Straight" programs for juvenile delinquents may actually make them more likely to offend. Freaking people out is one of those strategies that makes a certain amount of sense intuitively (even George Bluth used it!), but that has a lot of problems when you apply it in the real world.

What should we do instead? I'm not a sex educator, but looking back, I can tell you what I would've wanted: real information on how to reduce the risks of sex, something most people do as part of their normal, healthy, but not entirely risk-free live. Advice on how to discuss these risks with a partner, which was totally lost in our parade of STI photos and weird abstinence assemblies. And most of all, the acknowledgment that I deserved to make my decisions based on reason and logic, not fear.

City Department Of Health's New Ads Aim To Rein In Holiday Binge Drinking [NY Daily News]
Scared Straight? Not Really [PyschCentral]

Image via Pavel Ignatov/Shutterstock.com