words Madeline Whithorn
illustration Taylor Hale
“Semen! Vaginal Secretions! Breast milk! Blood!” is often one of the first things I hear in the morning. Enthusiastic, students yell these words at me without a giggle, without hesitation. I have the pleasure of teaching comprehensive sex education in Oklahoma. In public schools, in Oklahoma City. Comprehensive sex ed means I get to acknowledge that sex exists, teenagers are doing it, and that it’s not wrong to have it.
I get asked every so often how someone becomes a sex educator. Some think you just have to have a lot of sex. Others think you are morally corrupt and you want to teach their children how to have sex. In reality, though, most parents don’t really care how or why I do it, they’re just grateful they don’t have to.
Prior to this career, I worked for an agency that served victims of sexual and domestic violence. And from the lens of trauma, rape is not sex. Sex is a weapon. Sex is to hold power and control over another person’s body. After three years of working to train volunteers and educate the community, I found that I was experiencing vicarious trauma. What I saw, what I read, what I heard became overwhelming. I found myself in intensive outpatient therapy directly because of my work. Even after therapy ended, I still knew I had to leave. I spent months knowing that, but not knowing what I wanted to do. Then I found a listing to be an adolescent health specialist that focused on sexual education in the schools. I applied, although somewhat apprehensively.
My sex education as a teenager growing up in Edmond, Oklahoma was scant. In 5th grade, the boys and girls split up and learned about periods and erections. We later had an assembly where they passed out Teen Spirit deodorant because we learned we were going to smell once we became teenagers. I was thrilled getting that deodorant, though. That meant I was going to be a grown up. I couldn’t wait to get pimples, because that’s what teenagers got. And I was certain I needed that training bra, because I was going to be curvy one day, just like Ginger Spice, and without training, my breasts weren’t going to know what to do! Later, in biology in 9th grade, we looked at pictures of scary warts and rashes on genitals projected on the screen, and were told this was the consequence of having sex unless you were married.
When I had my first interview with the agency I now work for, I had my question prepared for when it came time for me to ask. My concern, drawing on my experience as an adolescent was, “Is this abstinence-only?” If it was, then I know that this position was not for me. It’s not. To move from educating people about how sex is a weapon to speaking about sex as an act of pleasure was a big shift.
Of course, yelling body fluids at me with may not always come with ease in the beginning. With the younger students, freshmen, it can take some time to ease into comfort even saying “sex”. Sometimes we have to revert back to basic anatomy before moving forward. Sometimes we have to draw on the board, comparing the immune system to ninjas, for example. Or explain that some people have three holes “down there”. With the older students (or younger ones who want to prove they know their stuff) they are more than willing to tell you anything and everything. How many partners they’ve had, which condoms they prefer (it’s always the “gold wrapper”), that their favorite sex position is *69 (yes, *69). They look for ways to shock me, or make me laugh, or to make me disgusted. They are faced with a nod indicating that yes, I heard them. No, I’m not shocked. Sometimes they look to make their classmates laugh, or feel uncomfortable. Sometimes they succeed, but if anything said could be hurtful, they are immediately shut down. I make sure to explain why, though. Most often, they don’t even realize that they are being derogatory, homophobic, or hurtful. Effective comprehensive sex ed cannot marginalize or disenfranchise any group of people, and cruel words can quickly lead to me failing to do my job as best I can.
I also have the opportunity to reinforce the importance of consent, rape, and rape culture. We practice how to say “no”, we talk about power and control, sexual coercion. We talk about condom negotiation skills and STI testing, so everyone can beempowered to be an advocate for their health and bodies. Again, I reflect on my own experience as a teenager. I consider what my relationships looked like and how they played out so that I can do my best work and so that others might avoid situations similar to my own. I was not taught consent, or what coercive control was. I did not have one adult speak out against what was clearly unhealthy and emotionally abusive. My first partner, who I was with for a year, had cheated on me with a minimum of six other people. Six friends. I was made to do things I was not comfortable with, and since no one said otherwise, I believed relationships like that were normal. I didn’t have autonomy, I was not permitted to have opinions. I was not allowed to have friends and even had to stop reading as much as I did previously because it made me “boring”. Because no one said otherwise, this set me on the trajectory to have relationships like this for many years. In fact, it took him being accused of rape for me to finally leave. It makes me so angry that I had endured so much, and that it was ignored by people that were supposed to care for me.
My job is not for everyone, but so necessary. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to remove shame and stigma out of sex, and get to normalize sex and sexuality. That I get to educate and empower youth to live and love safely. So often, teenagers do not have the opportunity to use their voices. When they speak up and speak out, so often they are dismissed, their thoughts, ideas, and concerns are minimized and trivialized. I leave work each day I teach with the hope that someone, at least one person, gets not just heard, but listened to, a little bit more. I leave work hoping that students have and use the tools provided to reach their goals and aspirations, because so many other adults in their lives either don’t provide them, or deny them that right. Finally, I leave work hoping other adults will join in the movement to secure a successful future for Oklahoma City public school students. Sex ed isn’t just about sex. It is for a healthy future for Oklahoma.