Perspective | Magazine

What I wish I had learned in middle-school sex ed

The federal government doesn’t control what public schools teach about sex ed — and Massachusetts doesn’t require the subject.

images from adobe stock; globe staff photo illustration

The subject of sex first pinged on my radar when one day in middle school, I watched the movie Hocus Pocus and had to look up “virgin” in the dictionary. In the film, a virgin has to light a candle to resurrect an evil trio of witches from the dead. I felt both silly and ashamed for not knowing the word.

At my Catholic middle school in Attleboro, my sexual education consisted of a girls-only lesson about menstruation. When I was a young teen, my mom handed me a copy of Understanding the Facts of Life, a thin paperback that outlined topics such as hormones, pregnancy, sex, and contraception. After I read it, she asked if I had questions, but I was too overwhelmed to think of any. If my peers were sharing information among themselves, I was oblivious to it.

At my public high school, we had to take two health classes that covered topics including puberty and reproduction. The discussion about sexually transmitted diseases remains vivid — they all sounded terrifying — but I don’t remember learning about healthy relationships, consent, or sexual orientation.


I first admitted to myself that I might be gay when I was 18 years old. I tried to ignore it. When that failed, I went online and typed: “I’m gay, now what,” which was about as helpful as using WebMD to diagnose a headache. That’s when it really hit me that my early sex education had been completely insufficient. While my heterosexual parents are supportive of my sexual orientation, they didn’t know much about the topic when I came out.

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And in 2018, sex ed in the United States is still nowhere near as comprehensive as it should be. The #MeToo movement is proof that we need better instruction, especially around consent and respect. The federal government doesn’t control what public schools teach about sex ed, and Massachusetts is one of 26 states that doesn’t require the subject, which means individual school districts decide the curriculum. Programs could be as progressive as comprehensive sex ed or as conservative as abstinence-only — if a school teaches anything at all. In April, the Trump administration began pushing for abstinence education in its new guidelines for funding teen pregnancy prevention programs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a list of critical sexual education topics, but in 2014 only 25 percent of public and private middle schools in Massachusetts taught the full selection. Less than half of schools nationwide discussed how to have healthy relationships.

Massachusetts needs to cast aside its Puritan mentality and create a statewide requirement for comprehensive sex education: an age-appropriate, medically accurate, inclusive program that emphasizes consent and other key subjects like interpersonal relationships. And it needs to start by age 11 or 12, when puberty begins. According to Bryant Paul, an associate professor at Indiana University who studies the effects of sexual messages in the media, 13 to 14 is now the average age at which kids are exposed to porn.

Jen Slonaker, who helped create comprehensive sex ed curricula for middle- and high-school students for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, told me, “We know that if we’re going to actually transform . . . the pervasive culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault, we’ve got to start from the youngest ages and start teaching the basics of autonomy and boundaries and consent.”


A state bill would require Massachusetts public school districts that teach the subject to make lessons medically accurate, age-appropriate, and inclusive to LGBTQ students. First introduced in 2011, the latest version of the bill passed the Senate and awaits a House vote, which has not yet been scheduled. The bill would allow parents to withdraw their children from these lessons and would allow parents to review the curriculum. This legislation is long overdue for approval.

Families should certainly talk with their children about sexual health, but not all parents have the necessary skills or knowledge, according to researchers from Georgetown University and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Plus, many adults already support school-based programs. In a 2014 survey published by the Public Library of Science, 75 percent of parents nationwide said it’s “very important” to teach sex ed in middle school.

According to Leeann Rizk, a health education and outreach coordinator at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, teachers can have conversations with middle schoolers that are more on their wavelength, such as explaining that playfighting is a form of non-consensual contact. They can also teach kids to ask permission before hugging a peer, Slonaker explained.

Research shows teaching kids accurately and appropriately about sexuality doesn’t result in higher sexual activity or pregnancy rates. In fact, it’s the opposite. In the Netherlands, comprehensive sex ed, which begins by teaching 4-year-olds about healthy relationships, is required. Statistics show that 90 percent of Dutch teens used contraceptives during their first sexual experience, and the number of teens who gave birth there is five times lower than the rate in the United States.

Teaching consent in schools won’t magically solve the complex problems that led to the #MeToo epidemic. But it will give more students the knowledge and skills to make smart, safe decisions.

Melanie Thibeault is a recent graduate of Emerson College’s Publishing and Writing master’s program. Send comments to