I was on YouTube one Sunday evening when I came across a video on my recommended feed. It was titled “Sex Education: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO).” As a huge fan of John Oliver’s program Last Week Tonight, I decided to give the video a watch. It provoked thoughts and emotions that I thought this platform and its community could benefit from. To gain better insight regarding where these emotions originated, I believe an understanding of my upbringing is necessary.
I grew up attending Catholic schools all the way to when I started my undergrad, here, at the University of Toronto. Some may envision Catholic education as sterile, and catholic schools as rigid places where students are taught by nuns. However, this image is inaccurate. There are some aspects of the Catholic education system which I find limiting to growing students, but overall, in many ways, I really loved the education I received. My public, Catholic education maintains a resemblance to that of the public education system in terms of the actual “education” part. Although my opinions regarding education on sex and abstinence may be attributed to the Catholic education system, I believe the issue is not limited to Catholic schools. It serves to highlight the problematic ways in which students are taught to understand sex and relationships across all school systems.
Once, in my grade nine religion class, a group of grade 12 students gave us a presentation about abstinence. Back then, sex was something of which I had no opinion, and if I did, it probably resembled something similar to abstinence. I grew up in a bit of a bubble—as I think many of us did, but within different contexts. By this, I mean that I didn’t hear a lot of different opinions or opposing viewpoints, and often wasn’t exposed to the diversity inherent in other people’s ideas. When it came to sexual education, I was taught that sex before marriage was bad and practising abstinence was <i>good<i>. Don’t misunderstand me, these opinions were not shoved down my throat, I simply wasn’t presented another manner through which to understand sex. At this point in my life, I was also quite private when it came to my thoughts and opinions, so I didn’t have a lot of conversations about these types of topics with my parents or friends.
The presentation by the grade 12 students compared a woman’s sexuality to a cookie. A girl in the class was told to take the cookie and offer pieces of it to different boys in the classroom. What was left of the cookie for the final boy were a few crumbling broken pieces. This demonstration was supposed to represent what happens when women do not value their sexuality and have sex before marriage—encouraging abstinence. At the time, this presentation was of little impact to me. In fact, I only recalled the experience and how problematic it was after viewing the John Oliver program on sexual education.
There are certainly many problems I now recognize regarding teaching teenagers to consider their sexuality in this manner. A few major ones include representing all sexual experiences as though sex is inherently heterosexual, and placing no importance on a man’s role or responsibility in heterosexual sex.
Some backwards ideas that affect me as a woman the most are the ones that equate a woman’s value in a relationship with her virginity. To put it simply, I’m tired of the implication that a woman has less worth, the more sexually active she is.
At the time of the presentation, I couldn’t recognize, or I didn’t have the education to recognize, how incredibly close-minded and degrading this version of sexual education was.
I think sharing sexual and abstinence education in this way is an unacceptable approach to educating teens. By devaluing and degrading female sexuality, —this through implying that women become crumbling broken pieces, the more they have sexual experiences—women are taught to feel guilty for their inherent sexual desires.
I don’t think it’s wrong to educate youth about abstinence and the benefits it can bring. However, when it is presented as the only reasonable option, and done in such a way that shames women, I think it’s not only extremely harmful, but needs to be a topic of a conversation for future change.