Sex & Relationships

Sex Ed in the Bible Belt

I signed a paper promising no sex until marriage. The prize for my upstanding moral rectitude? A free chicken sandwich.
The first time I can recall knowing about sex was in second grade. Someone whispered the word sex while I stood in line to leave the classroom. We giggled. I'm not sure I knew what it meant, but I knew it was taboo. Later that year one of my friends was given detention for kissing someone under the art room table. I didn't understand the punishment; I didn't understand that kissing was bad. In fourth grade I had my first sex-ed course, if that is the appropriate designation. Much like the course I would go through during the next year, its primary focus was puberty, not sex. Teachers were willing to answer questions about sex, but most of our questions were unrelated. One girl asked what would happen if someone gave birth while going to the bathroom. Would the baby drown in the toilet? Perhaps my biggest sexual education of elementary school was on the bus in fourth grade. One of my friends had seen a porno. He whispered, "I actually saw the guy put his thing inside her." Wait. That is what sex is? Finally informed, I would giggle even more when it was mentioned -- I was nine.

By the time I reached middle school hormones had hit and I had real questions to ask, but I didn't ask any of them. The class was co-ed and traditionally composed of more goofing off than education. It was also my first encounter with scare tactics. The context of these tactics is important. I attended an inner-city school where most of the students lived in the projects. Pregnancy in middle school was fairly common. My high school, although more than twice the size of my middle school, had fewer pregnant students.

At both schools we had the same abstinence-only speaker, known ironically as "the sex guy." The class made it clear how conservative his stance was. We had practice babies to take home for a few days that cried and needed to be fed by a key every three hours or so. One girl had been so irritated by it that she put it in toaster, or so the rumor goes. We tried on pregnancy suits and were told the costs of raising a child. We were shown uncensored footage of childbirth.

Most of our time was spent discussing STDs. Although some demonstrations were reasonable, several were just scare tactics. One of the more reasonable demonstrations began with everyone being given a cup of clear liquid. Two students had cups with a clear dye that represented an STD -- a person could look healthy but harbor a disease. We were then instructed to exchange part of the contents of our cup with three other people in the class. After we had done so they dropped an indicator into our cups to reveal the dye was now in many students' cups; a large portion of the class had an STD. In another example we were shown a wheel, like the kind you can win prizes off of at fairs, except we spun for different types of STDs. The chances of escaping the STDs with one spin were very slim. One tactic I experienced was particularly disturbing to me, an example I initially thought persuasive. The instructor offered two chocolate bars. One contained laxatives and the other was a regular chocolate bar. We were offered both, but not told which was which. When we declined, we were told sexual partners are like chocolate bars -- the risk isn't worth the pleasure. These implications are unsettling -- sexual partners are presented as untrustworthy and as deceitful as a chocolate bar. In retrospect, it was an incredibly unfair way of presenting sex. My middle school sex-ed class left me with one distinct impression: sex is painful. Nothing depicted it positively. My hormones were raging, but the actual idea of sex was repulsive and frightening.

Now that I feared sex and anything close to it there was only one last step in this sexual education course -- abstinence commitment. It was a public school, so they couldn't justify saving sex for marriage on religious grounds. Instead, they justified it with social custom. A person is more valuable to their spouse if they wait until marriage. Virginity is a gift. Waiting is a gift. They split us up by gender and asked the guys if they would want to marry a virgin, and supposedly, they all said yes. This was particularly interesting because there was a sexually active couple in my class. The girl was devastated. They actually told her that her boyfriend probably didn't want to marry her because he was having sex with her. But the real topper for this class was signing a promise -- a promise for a chicken sandwich. Oh yes. Sign this paper saying you'll wait until marriage and you can get a free sandwich from Chick-fil-A. I don't mean to state the obvious, but nothing could devalue a person more than selling his/ her virginity for a chicken sandwich. Still, even if this example is extreme, there is something genuinely insulting about saving sex because of social standards. When to have sex should be a decision we think is important enough that we answer it for ourselves. And I don't care what that room full of high school boys said. If someone looks at me and sees "virgin" or "slut," I could never consider them a friend, much less a romantic partner. For me, the most upsetting aspect of my public school sex-ed class was its emphasis on waiting until marriage.

The other sex ed class I took in middle school was much more openminded. We talked about sex outside of marriage and we put condoms on bananas. There were no scare tactics, no implications of being devalued by sex. My minister led the class. It's fair to do a double take here. I grew up in the Bible belt, a place notorious for being socially conservative. A neighboring county actually tried to legislate against homosexuals living within their jurisdiction. Certainly a minister with a box of condoms standing in front of middle school kids at a Presbyterian church is taboo. For me, nothing could speak more against the Bible belt stereotype. It isn't fair to assume every church is teaching the same thing, that the churches are the roots of this sex-ed phenomenon. I would argue that the condemnation of sex is much harder to trace. Something powerful worked the system to make abstinence-only education the priority and it is incredibly self-sustaining. Making sex a taboo topic keeps children from finding reliable information outside of the classroom. This early negative perception of sex is almost impossible to escape from.

How is a society to overcome false information when it is the only information that it trusts? We need to start having another discussion. We need alternatively taught sexual education, even if we have to ask our ministers to do it. We need to talk about sex outside of the classroom. Most importantly, we need to treat sex fairly.
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