Every year or so, since the summer of 2004, I make sure to re-watch Mean Girls. In part because I think it’s important to remind myself about the detrimental power of social cliques, but to be honest, I’m mainly just trying to vicariously invent high school memories through the experiences of Cady Heron.
And while I’m sure my mom would prefer me saying that there’s a Shakespeare quote for every situation, I’m more often struck by a line from Mean Girls. This week brought the words of Coach Carr to mind: “At your age, you’re going to be having a lot of urges. You’re going to want to take off your clothes and touch each other. But, if you DO touch each other, you WILL get chlamydia. And die.”
I used to get quite a laugh from this scene, but I no longer find it all that funny because a friend of mine recently got chlamydia and, thanks to Coach Carr, I actually thought he was in serious danger.
When I was in school I only received sex education in the 7th grade, long before it was all that relevant. The curriculum I followed focused exclusively on biology and anatomy. Topics such as mutual consent, contraception, STDs and abortion were completely ignored. The general impression I got was that sex is dangerous and the only smart precaution is abstinence until marriage.
And I fear that many kids have similar experiences growing up. In Israel there is a mandated curriculum for sexual education but it is only until 10th grade and its implementation is not enforced. Even in the schools that do teach sex ed, there is no teacher training course or exam that provides official certification for instructors and, therefore, verifying their knowledge and regulating the information they’re teaching our kids is incredibly difficult. As a result, many Israelis, even in the modern secular world, grow up with vast educational gaps regarding healthy, informed and consensual sex.
This reality is often defended by people who believe it to be impossible to separate sex ed from cultural or religious values. They fear that enforcing a specific curriculum would compromise their personal beliefs and they don’t want their children exposed to graphic information in a way that might condone pre-marital sexual activity. Sex ed, they often argue, should be taught at home.
This approach is naive. It assumes that high schoolers (who barely talk to their parents at all) will feel comfortable having open and honest conversations about sex with mom and dad. It also assumes that kids who DO receive a homemade, conservative sexual education will take their parents advice and remain abstinent.
These assumptions are dangerous and ultimately leave many adolescents uninformed about an unavoidable reality. And like with most things in life, poor education in sexual awareness has detrimental and tragic consequences.
This educational failure produces stories like that of the pregnant 14 year old who had never been taught about contraception, or the ultra-Orthodox man who showed up at The Open Clinic in Jerusalem for anonymous HIV testing and had to be told that condoms can’t be reused or shared. Even if you wash them out first.
Perhaps most concerning of all is that the silence surrounding sex creates a void easily filled by the inappropriate and toxic ideas that dominate movies, pop culture and the internet. It leaves us ignorant, ashamed, and poorly equipped to ward off sexual misconduct and assault.
In my opinion, the most effective way to address the underlying causes of issues like teenage pregnancy, the spread of STDs and even sexual harassment and rape, is not by preaching abstinence or demonizing sexual activity, but rather by providing children of appropriate age with a more impactful and comprehensive sexual education that will focus on more than just “our changing bodies” or fearmongering about chlamydia …which, as it turns out, doesn’t kill you.