How Sex Education Can Combat Sexual Violence

How Sex Education Can Combat Sexual Violence
By Miri Mogilevsky, blogs at Brute Reason

Comprehensive, evidence-based sex education is usually framed as a remedy for the usual culprits: STI transmission, teenage pregnancy, having sex “too early” or with “too many” different partners, and so on. Although this sex-positive feminist bristles at the fact that one of the goals of comprehensive sex ed is to delay sexual initiation and reduce teens’ number of sexual partners, overall these programs are extremely important to promote, and they are effective at reducing STIs and pregnancy in teens—unlike abstinence-only sex ed.

However, I would argue that the goals of secular, scientific sex education should not end there. I believe that we have the responsibility to teach young people sexual ethics and to use education to challenge a culture that too often excuses or even promotes sexual violence.

How do we accomplish such a monumental task? The same way as we teach kids to do school projects: by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts.

Rape culture is an ideology that consists of a number of interrelated but distinct beliefs about gender, sexuality, and violence. These beliefs are spread and enforced by just about every source of information that a child interacts with: parents, friends, teachers, books, movies, news stories (on TV, in magazines and newspapers, online), music, advertising, laws, etc..

Traditional, abstinence-only sex education promotes a number of these beliefs in various ways. Here are a few messages that these programs send to teens either implicitly or explicitly, along with how these messages support rape culture:

1. It is a woman’s job to prevent sex from happening.

Abstinence-only sex ed is full of religious ideology, and one example is the idea that women are “clean” and “pure” and must safeguard their own chastity before men can strip them of it. This idea suggests to women that 1) men who keep pushing them for sex are not doing anything wrong, and 2) if they eventually get pressured into having sex, that’s not rape—that’s just the woman not being strong-willed enough.

2. Men always want sex.

A corollary to the previous message, the “men always want sex” meme implies that men who use coercion and/or violence to get sex are only doing what’s natural for them. It also erases male victims of sexual assault, because if men want sex all the time, how could they possibly be raped?

3. Once you’ve had premarital sex, you’re dirty and ruined forever.

Abstinence-only programs promote this idea by using disgusting metaphors like a lollipop that’s been sucked on and discarded, or by having children spit into a glass of water that gets passed around, or by having them rip a paper heart up to symbolize each time they have sex before marriage. Tragically, rapists and abusers use this message against their victims, convincing them that nobody will ever want them now that they’ve been “ruined.” Sometimes this prevents victims from doing anything to try to escape the situation, as Elizabeth Smart attests.

4. Premarital sex is immoral and bad; married and monogamous sex is virtuous and good.

This false dichotomy serves to erase the fact that abuse, sexual assault, and plain ol’ bad sex can happen even within a committed marriage. It may also teach teens to expect that their premarital sexual experiences will all be “Bad” and there’s no avoiding it. This means that teens who are being assaulted or abused may not realize that there’s anything “wrong” with what’s going on; after all, they were warned that premarital sex is bad, weren’t they? Here’s a great take on this from another blogger:

Sex-negative messages don’t keep people from having sex.  They keep people from having good sex.  They keep people from having pride in their sexuality, from sexual self-awareness.  They keep people from asking questions about sex, and communicating with their partners.  They discourage experimentation.  They blur the lines between consensual sex and rape by framing all sex as an undifferentiated mass of “bad.”  They combine victim-blaming with generalized guilt about sex, so that perpetrator and survivor are equally culpable.  Basically, they take logic and reason out of the equation.

5. If you have premarital sex, you are a bad person.
Similarly to the last message, the idea that having premarital sex makes you a bad or sinful person erases the distinction between ethical and unethical sex. If everyone who has sex before marriage is a bad person, why bother distinguishing between a bad person who gets consent for sex and a bad person who rapes? Why distinguish between a bad person who rapes and a bad person who “lets” themselves be raped?

There are many more terrible messages that abstinence-only sex education promotes, but I’ll stop there. To be clear, abstinence-only sex ed does not cause these messages to appear in our culture; they were already there. (Religion was probably a major cause, but it certainly wasn’t the whole story.) Children will learn these messages even if they are not religious and do not get this type of sex education.

But abstinence-only sex ed does promote these messages and cause them to become even more entrenched, and failing to challenge them is just about as bad as promoting them, in my view. Educators have a remarkable opportunity to challenge kids’ and teens’ ideas about the world in ways that parents may not be able to. Why not take advantage of that?

A truly evidence-based sex education program must do away not only with lies and exaggerations about STIs, pregnancy, and condom effectiveness, but also with the dominant, rarely-challenged scripts about sexuality that abstinence-only sex ed promotes. Here are some ways to do that. They’re just a start, but they would make a difference.

1. Sex education should center consent in the conversation. Consent, rather than arbitrary notions of morality, should be the standard by which we measure sexual activities to determine whether or not they are ethical. Consensual sex, of course, is not necessarily problem-free, but it’s a far better place for teens to start. Conversely, of course, nonconsensual sex (that is, sexual assault) is never okay.

2. It should emphasize that sex and sexuality are not shameful. While comprehensive sex education, unlike abstinence-only, does not explicitly shame anyone for having sex, it still treats reduction of sexual behavior in general (not just of risky sexual behavior) as a positive goal to aim for. That sends the message that less sex is better than more sex, and therefore that there’s something wrong with having sex.

3. It should challenge gender roles and stereotypes. Regressive, inaccurate ideas about gender don’t just keep women out of leadership roles and STEM jobs; they actually cause bad sex in the best case and sexual assault in the worst. The idea that men pursue and women are pursued; that men always want sex and women always want Tru Luv; that women should take it as a “compliment” when they are objectified and harassed—all of these things encourage and excuse sexual assault. Not to mention the fact that they’re extremely heteronormative.

4. It should remind teens that not wanting to have sex is okay. When sex ed programs discuss the option of not being sexually active, it’s usually framed either as a moral choice (in abstinence-only sex education) or as a smart move to prevent negative health outcomes (in comprehensive sex ed). Either way, not having sex is portrayed as a difficult but ultimately superior choice that teens must make by resisting peer pressure and hormones. But in fact, some people are asexual and have no sexual desire or attraction to resist. It’s important to validate this as part of the spectrum of sexual diversity, not only so that asexual teens feel accepted, but so that their peers learn not to pressure them.

5. It should deemphasize (although not completely negate) the importance of relationships and marriage. This is surely a controversial stance and I think nuance is important here. But my reasoning is this: the extreme importance that committed relationships (and especially marriage) are allocated in our society plays a part in keeping people trapped in abusive relationships. Teens who don’t feel that they can experience sex, affection, or love outside of the context of a monogamous relationship may feel pressured to stay in one that they know isn’t healthy, but that is providing them with some combination of those things. 

It would probably take a book and dozens of paper citations to fully explain how and why sex education should combat sexual violence. But as these examples show, healthy sexuality is about more than just using contraception and getting tested for STIs. Unfortunately, our culture sends us many negative and harmful messages about sex, but good sex ed can help inoculate kids and teens against them.

About the Author
Miri Mogilevsky is a progressive feminist atheist and a recently transplanted New Yorker. She has a B.A. in psychology and is currently working on a Masters in social work. After that, she hopes to pursue a career that combines activism with counseling. When not doing school things, Miri spends her time reading and writing about social justice, mental health, sexuality, and politics. Occasionally she also interacts with people and sleeps. A few of her other interests include Russian literature, photography, and Cheez-its. In addition, she enjoys asking people about their feelings.

Pizza and Pregnancy Tests

Pizza and Pregnancy Tests
by J.M. Bates

My friend confided in me that she might be pregnant. She was absolutely terrified. At first, I was surprised that she came to me with her serious issue. She wasn't my best friend; in fact, far from it. She often seemed to really dislike me, often calling me "boring" and like "an old lady" in front of our other friends. However, she said I was the only one she could trust not to tell anyone else about her possible pregnancy.

I tried my best to comfort her. I took her out for pizza in an attempt to cheer her up a little, but she could hardly talk or eat due to her high stress. She looked like she was on the verge of tears the entire time. I had no idea what to say to her; she was occupied by her thoughts anyway. We later went to a store together and I told her that I'd buy her anything she needed. She picked out a box of at-home pregnancy tests, the kind where you pee on a stick. That box of multiple tests was expensive to purchase. I thought to myself that her boyfriend should be the one buying it instead of me. Where was that deadbeat, anyway? My friend was going through hell and her boyfriend probably had no idea what was going on. I bought the tests for her from an elderly cashier who looked at me disapprovingly.

Back at my friend's house, I remember watching her face as she waited for her test results, the plastic urine-dotted strips all lined up alongside each other by the bathroom sink. Her wild anxiety merged with disappointment and dread as each test yielded a positive result.  

This event happened sixteen years ago. My friend and I were both twelve years old at the time.

I didn't have sexual health education at my school until I was seventeen years old. By that time, multiple girls in my class (including my friend) had already become pregnant and dropped out of school. A few boys in my class were teased for impregnating girls who attended other schools.

The sexual health education we did eventually receive at our school was dismal. Outdated textbooks depicted cross-section diagrams of human genitalia and stock photographs of wholesome teenagers with 80's haircuts. The texts heavily involved hygiene and diseases, with recurrent life advice focusing on abstinence. We were never taught about condoms or other contraceptives, nor about consent or safe sex. Our teachers seemed clueless and embarrassed to be there, with a different teacher each week. I was given the impression that this class was dumped on unwilling teachers to perform, possibly determined by choosing out of a hat or by a spreadsheet on the principal's computer. I recall one flustered football coach give our class this vague advice: "If you don't want it [sex], just cross your arms and… yeah." On another occasion, an entire class period was wasted on a discussion about the conspiracy theory of the government inventing AIDS.

The girls in my class that had already become pregnant and dropped out of school most likely would not have benefited from this particular sexual health education class if it had been provided earlier to them. I would say the same about the male classmates who got their female partners pregnant. These individuals most likely would have learned nothing from this class, just like the rest of us. If the class had instead been medically-accurate, current, and included information about contraceptives and safe sex, then maybe fewer students would have become pregnant or impregnated others.

The entire time I was in this terrible sexual education class, I kept thinking to myself, "This is bullshit!" I was getting a lot of sexual health information from the internet at the time, and it was a lot more current and sex-positive than what I was being taught in school. I didn't watch porn, a popular source of disinformation about sex, because pornography in general scared me. Instead, I found myself migrating to feminist and sex-positive online communities, blogs, and websites. Even feminist sex shops with websites online gave useful information. I learned important things from these multiple sources, such as only using water-based lubricant with latex contraceptives, and that HPV could be transmitted between partners even while using condoms and dental dams. I also learned what a dental dam was.

All in all, it was nice to educate myself in privacy from sources that were medically accurate and sex-positive. It changed my life for the better. My overall attitude towards life was improved, because I became more aware and also less plagued by guilt and shame about my needs. I had many other friends confide in me about their pregnancies, abortions, and diseases. I always did my best to provide sources of medically-accurate information as well as a non-judgemental and understanding shoulder to lean on. I look forward to the day when medically-accurate, age-appropriate sexual health education becomes mainstream in the United States. Until then, I'm going to keep e-mailing politicians to put comprehensive sex ed bills through. I will also continue to buy pizza and pregnancy tests for my friends in need.

About the Author
J.M. Bates is an atheist feminist living in the Chicago area. Race, gender, sexuality, income, and youth issues are part of her main focus. She has written for Fuck Yeah Feminists, Examiner, MOOT, Elevate Difference, and Starpulse.

A Catholic Girl’s Calling to Sex Ed

A Catholic Girl's "Calling" to Sex Ed
By Jennifer Hart, MPH
Having been raised in a suburban, lower-middle class Irish Catholic family in New England has certainly impacted my worldview, particularly as it relates to issues of religion and sexual and reproductive health issues.  In fact, my experiences related to religion are what ultimately “called” me to study and work in sexual health specifically, and not reproductive health.  I was raised in a family that never questioned the Faith, nor talked about it in relation to other faith beliefs.  There were certain expectations that went along with being Catholic, having to do with sex, gender, and relationships. Although I knew these silent yet steadfast expectations, I questioned my acceptance of these tenets even as a teenager.

I’m the first to admit my privilege, and to be completely transparent: I’m a white, upper middle class, cisgender, heterosexual female with undergraduate and Ivy League graduate school degrees. I am also cynical, jaded, hardened, pragmatic, and sarcastic.  I’m a divorced, 35 year old recovering Catholic from the Northeast, now living in a large urban city, and identify as a Secular Humanist.  I am in a loving relationship with an amazing man, 19 years my senior. Other than being a woman (which is a challenge unto itself), I’ve got a lot of privilege. My struggles are my own, but I know others have endured far more than I.

When I was about 13, my mom gave me a stack of readers and pamphlets about my body and puberty, told me to look through them, and to come back to her if I had any questions. I only had one question, which came after watching a cartoon video on puberty. It was about how girls masturbate. I was too embarrassed to ask her in person, so I wrote a note. I never got a reply.  Really, the only other question I asked was a personal one, to my mom. I said, “Can I ask you a personal question? Did you and Dad have sex before you were married?” Her answer: “That is a personal question.”

Everything else I learned about sex came from school and from friends. The internet wasn’t really something you surfed for answers in those days. I remember as a middle-schooler, seeing one 8th grade couple making out in the hall way – all the time. When they broke up, it was the talk of the century. I had major, heart-wrenchingly intense, unrequited crushes on boys.  I remember having only one sex-ed class in high school – 9th grade, I think, and it was about reproduction and abstinence. I was in a class with all girls, and the boys were getting educated in the room next door.  I was a good girl. I called myself “Halo Head.” I was a good Catholic girl and my plan was to wait until I got married to have sex. (Ok, so I didn’t wait until I was married, but I did wait until I was engaged).

My parlay into sexual discourse and awareness grew from the socially acceptable expectation that all girls will eventually experience pregnancy, and the socially vilified reality of sexual assault.  I remember feeling “those feelings down there” when I’d read books or watch shows involving childbirth or rape.  Childbirth. Rape.  Even writing this, I think, how creepy is that?!? But, these passages and scenes were not stigmatized as “dirty” or porn, only natural and horrible, respectively. The common thread between child birth and rape is sex.  Later, as an adult, in thinking about how my interest in sexuality began, I felt angry and ashamed that it was linked prominently to pain and violence, and not pleasure.  My interest was steeped in stigma and shame. My access to positive messages of sex and relationships was censored and oppressed by my religious upbringing. Don’t even get me started on my love affair with the Thorn Birds.

I moved away from my family and childhood home in suburban Connecticut when I was 18 to rural North Carolina, where I lived for 13 years. I chose to attend Lenoir-Rhyne College, a small, private, Lutheran school, because of their unique and renowned program for Deaf Education. Those choices led me through the formative years of my life; I was out on my own, making decisions, and determining and defining my values.  Immediately, I noticed that religion was undeniably prevalent. Signs and billboards touted Jesus and Bible verses, abiding worshipers stood on highway medians preaching into the open windows of passing cars, and business meetings began with prayer.  I was approached on numerous occasions by people asking me where I attended church – then either shunned or considered a potential convert when I told them I was Catholic. “So you’re not Christian,” they’d say. I could be “born again”, a concept foreign to me.

Such confrontations about religion and vocation forced me to reckon with my own faith, in particular those tenets that had social and political implications.  The Catholic faith clearly defines its views on issues related to sexuality, including premarital sex, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, masturbation, and gender roles in relationships, just as clearly as it defines the guilt associated with the abandonment of these definitions. My foundation was firm until I began to see the gender inequities and discrepancies between my faith and my career path.

I broke away from the confines of Catholicism, and organized religion in general, and have dealt with the repercussions ever since. I was challenged by religion’s pervasiveness within professional and social outlets within the “Bible Belt.” My reactions to religion became defensive and negative. My work in teen pregnancy prevention, HIV/AIDS, and sexual and reproductive health advocacy made my time in the rural southeast an eye-opening and challenging experience.

In the area of sexuality education, often local and regional legislation determines what you can and cannot say in the classroom. Teaching “abstinence-only-until-marriage” sex education classes and condom failure rates is a denial of the facts and reality of teen sexual initiation. This type of education works against itself when youth choose not to use condoms upon their sexual debut because they believe what they’ve been taught, ultimately increasing infection rates and unintended pregnancies.  In addition, an entire population of students is made invisible and silenced by the abstinence only until marriage message.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQQ) youth have very few (although ever-increasing) options for considering the notion of marriage in their lives, and are hardly ever included in educational conversations and settings about sexuality. The idea that students need only be taught about abstinence and nothing else further perpetuates the stigma of sex and sexuality, of sex as solely procreative, silences LGBTQQ students, and erases women’s sexual pleasure from the conversation.

In 2002, the World Health organization organized a meeting in Geneva to discuss and further define Sexual Health. The attendees came up with the following guide (emphasis is my own):

Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.

Despite this positive and open-minded approach to sexual health, the United States’ proclivity to limit and oppress access to sexuality information and education, through the promulgation of religious and cultural expectations has significant emotional, mental, and physical consequences. Sexuality and health are the foundation of our being and yet in the South and in many other areas of our country, parents, teachers, clergy, doctors, clinicians, and even pharmacists refuse to accept that sex is natural and normal, putting their morality onto the lives of their children, students, congregants, patients, and clients. The effect of inhibiting discussions of sex, identity, and health is detrimental to the overall health, well-being, and stability of a person and society as a whole. My liberal values for social, sexual and reproductive justice and gender equality were tested daily in this conservative Christian part of the country.  There, and even now in my urban city, I continue to see the increasing influence of religion on politics and funding streams regarding the sexual and reproductive issues I support.


Now, I work in the abortion field, implementing training and education opportunities for abortion care providers.  Part of my job is to provide values clarification and pregnancy options counseling training to those working with women who seek abortion care or support. Inevitably, the recurring challenge that counselors face is working with religious patients. The skill of the counselor is to meet the patient where they are in their belief system. Helping the patient create a space in their faith where their god provides them with comfort and acceptance rather than shame and guilt can be transformative for the patient. Although abortion is couched within the reproductive health and justice movements, I see abortion as the bridge from reproductive health to sexual health. Abortion enables women to maintain their autonomy as sexual beings, undoing the expectation that they will, or should, parent.  Coming from my upbringing, I never really thought that I would be working in abortion.  But here I am, and I believe in its morality.

Despite my personal struggles with religion and faith, I very firmly recognize the intrigue that religion holds for me, especially with regard to issues of sexual and reproductive health, and its influence on the choices people make.  I am also painfully aware of my knee-jerk emotional reactions to religion and its pervasiveness in the social constructs of our society. Still, we need to fight as a society to answer these questions:  What does an individual need to be a healthy, well-rounded, confident sexual being?  How can society overcome religious stigma and understand the complexities of sexuality with compassion and acceptance?  How can we educate and empower women and men to love themselves without the detrimental comparison to unrealistic ideals set forth by society, the media, and religion?  How do we do all of this while still maintaining the integrity of a culture and community of people and their unique and diverse beliefs?

My work in teen sex-ed and pregnancy prevention, HIV/AIDS, and abortion has focused my passion on the sexual being of humans, by way of stigma. My experiences showed me that I was advocating for a person who happened to have an STI, who happened to be pregnant, who happened to have HIV, or who happened to be gay.  My passion was in supporting this person, who, because they are a sexual human being, was now being treated with hatred, discrimination, and condemnation.  I studied sexuality and health because a person is first a sexual being (from birth!), before they are a reproductive person (if at all!).  Sexuality encompasses the continuums of one’s sex, gender, orientation, sexual behavior, sexual health, and sexual rights. The binaries of sex, gender, and orientation that our society so loves and finds so comforting reduces us to the moral panics that devolve into ideological rhetoric at religious and political bully pulpits.

Comprehensive sexuality education, sexual positivity, sexual rights, and reproductive justice are foundations of morality, rooted in compassion and humanism. I have made choices, strongly influenced by my Catholic upbringing, and I’ve made choices as an autonomous, sexual woman. It has been these choices, the ones I’ve made based on my gut desire and intuition that have been the most satisfying and fulfilling. My hope is for people across all walks of life and ages to have control over and take pleasure in their sexual health.

About the Author
Jennifer A. Hart, MPH, is the Director of Training & Education at the National Abortion Federation. In 2011, Jennifer earned her Master of Public Health from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, where she studied Sexuality and Health and religion’s influence on policy and access to care. Jennifer’s career and education have focused on the stigmatized issues of abortion, HIV/AIDS, sexual and gender-based violence, and sexual identity and rights. She has worked with Global Doctors for Choice, a global initiative of Physicians for Reproductive Health; the Access Team at International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region (IPPF/WHR); and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Jennifer studied and worked abroad in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Nigeria with organizations such as Profamilia, Instituto de Sexualidad Humana, and Rotary International. Prior to graduate school, Jennifer was the executive director of ALFA, the only HIV/AIDS service organization in rural northwestern NC, where she worked for eight years. Jennifer earned a BA in Spanish and Human and Community Service from Lenoir-Rhyne College (now known as Lenoir-Rhyne University) and a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Duke University. She volunteers as co-administrator of Repro Health Happy Hour DC, and is a blog contributor for Planned Parenthood of Central and Greater Northern New Jersey’s Center for Family Life Education. Most weekends, Jennifer can be found with a mug of French press coffee, ranting and raving about politics, religion, and social justice issues with her partner and their kitty kids.  Jennifer can be reached at [email protected].

Sex Education Month

What we’re doing for Sex Education Month this October

One of Secular Woman’s core values is the right of everyone to comprehensive sex education that is age appropriate and non-shaming. That is far from a reality today in the U.S. to the detriment of our youth and the adults those youth become. Accurate, unbiased knowledge of sex, our bodies, and our sexuality helps us to construct a healthy, affirming sense of our own sexuality and desire. So, for this week and the next in October, Sex Education Month, we are highlighting the importance of Sex Education through articles on our website and two twitter chats on Sex Ed, one from 2-3 PM EST on the 26th and another on the 30th from 8-9 PM EST. Join us using hashtag #SexEd and talk about Sex Education, where it needs to go, why its important, share your resources, where you go for advice as an adult…bring your questions and your opinions!

Meanwhile check out the articles we’ve already published this week on Sex Education:

Like Voldemort to Wizards
I grew up in an almost alternate universe, where courtship methods of the Victorian era were popular and no one spoke of sex except in hushed or negative tones. Sex to Christian homeschoolers was like Voldemort to wizards — That Which Shall Not Be Named. I attended “purity” seminars at which homeschool celebrities like Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, urged audiences of horny teenagers to focus on God and flee that nebulous human demon called Lust.

Catholic Values and Sexuality vs. Actual Sex Education
Of course, all sex before marriage is out and wasn’t even discussed. Contraception was briefly mentioned, but only to be told that it was bad and wrong and no one should use it. Natural Family Planning (NFP), otherwise known as the rhythm method, was introduced but wasn’t explained. STDs weren’t even talked about because when both you and your spouse are virgins then you have no fear of catching any diseases. The wedding night was discussed in detail and the whole idea that your body no longer belongs to you, but to your husband or wife was talked about glowingly. I could never get on board with the idea that my body, what I have to lug around all day, was suddenly someone else’s.

Reclaiming my Voice
My father was the true idea of a traditional and insecure man who could only see things black and white. A real woman was submissive and meek and enslaved. If you were not this, than you were less of a woman and not appealing to a man, which I was told many times. I was told “no man will ever want you if don’t change”. Our dinner times were accompanied by my father lecturing and criticizing my mother, if I interrupted or responded to this he would speedily come over to my side of the table and slap me across my arms and body. We were given a list of interests we were allowed to be interested in and sex was not on the list. Everything was handled with aggression, verbal abuse, and hitting. My voice was taken away, and with it my right to be curious about things and feel new things.

Reclaiming my Voice

Reclaiming my Voice
By Catherine Rosso
I was born to a  pastor and his wife in 1985 in Central New York. My father stated his church was non-denominational but also had Pentecostal roots. My parents met in the Bible School they taught in together and were engaged their 2nd date, which they felt was planned and set up by the Holy Spirit. My perception of their beginnings as a couple, is that they were two lonely people with big ideas and plans on how God was going to use their lives to change “the nations”, as they called it. They believed they had a “calling” on their lives and being married was part of that calling. I don’t feel sexual attraction or chemistry had much to do with their decision to marry each other.

Being the child of this specific father and mother meant that church attendance on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings was not an option. I attended a baptist school from grades K-12. We had to do family devotions, church activities, and were only allowed to have christian friends. Other parents praise their children after they make a painting, win a game, or tie their shoes, we were affirmed any time we spoke in tongues, raised our hands in worship, or kneeled at the alter. My father was very emotional and an easily-tempered man. My father was the true idea of a traditional and insecure man who could only see things black and white. A real woman was submissive and meek and enslaved. If you were not this, than you were less of a woman and not appealing to a man, which I was told many times. I was told “no man will ever want you if don’t change”. Our dinner times were accompanied by my father lecturing and criticizing my mother, if I interrupted or responded to this he would speedily come over to my side of the table and slap me across my arms and body. We were given a list of interests we were allowed to be interested in and sex was not on the list. Everything was handled with aggression, verbal abuse, and hitting. My voice was taken away, and with it my right to be curious about things and feel new things.

My mom was very un-intune to herself and others emotionally. Her activities in the church and home defined her. If she wasn’t doing, she was nothing. Anything overly emotional or confrontational was corrected or disapproved of and the conversation was changed quickly by her. She taught me that my body was a secret to be kept from boys who want it but who can’t have it until they sign a legal document saying we are married, which to my mom meant that a man and I were bonded for life. Talking about sex casually, reading about sex, watching sex, thinking about sex, and feeling sexual was not permitted and would be punished. My mom’s big sex talk was mostly about my period. I was thirteen and we talked in my room. I was told that once a month I would menstruate and need to wear pads but the most important thing was I could never tell a boy if I started my period or when I was having a period. I was given a gold necklace with a key on it to remind me to wait for marriage. I had to watch, in youth group, these Christian videos on abstinence and all the consequences of having sex before marriage. If you were unmarried and had sex, you got STDs and got pregnant and no man would ever love you again because you weren’t a virgin, and if you waited for marriage everything would be about love, happiness, gummy bears and unicorns.

My school had a dress code. We were told the reason for the dress code was so that we wouldn't cause our brothers in the Lord to fall into sin. There was no Sex Ed, that was the parents’ job. The biggest thing I learned from my parents and my school about  sex is that men feel and desire everything and women feel and desire nothing. I was taught that men have no ability to control themselves and have no hope without Jesus and that women must keep everything covered, closed, hidden, suppressed, and quiet and that if we were not the type of woman that could do these things then we would never be loved by a man.

After a long journey I am now at a place where I believe our sexuality is beyond complex, wild, and is gorgeous and is supposed to be. Just like a rugged mountain or a vibrant sunset, our sexuality should manifest itself in it’s most natural form. The root of what hides us and limits us is a fear of being truthful, mostly to ourselves. To be truthful to ourselves requires an ownership of all that we feel and perceive and not relying on our past or our environment to dictate who we are. I believe that education on protection and respecting others is very important, however I do not think that a system can create a “one size fits all” curriculum on sex and succeed in the long run. When it comes to education, I promote an educational structure that is set up for the student to critically think, reflect, and come up with conclusions on their own. When it comes to something like sexuality, the question “why” needs to be looked at as much as the “how”. Why do I feel this way? Why do I want to respect a woman’s refusal to have sex? Why do I want to do my best to prevent getting pregnant right now? I also feel that an introduction to the topic of sex should be presented in a way that teaches a student to celebrate, to explore, and makes them feel good about their journey, rather than making them feel like a science project or a time-bomb about to go off or a piece of machinery that needs to be handled properly, using the pamphlets and books given. Our sexuality is not a new toy or device that we need to be taught how to use properly. We are meant to be our natural selves, which means less steering and more reinforcing the positive that is already apparent, more student-centered. After all, nothing is more real to a person than what they discover on their own.

About the Author:
I wanted to write about sexual education and my background due to the fact I have a great interest in human sexuality and I want to encourage others to break away from their preconceived ideas of themselves or others that were given to them by their backgrounds, families, or religions. I want to encourage others to empower themselves with knowledge and not depend on what they grew up with to understand themselves and sex.  I attend my local Unitarian Universalist Congregation, and I plan on homeschooling my daughter, so I am part of the homeschooling community in my area. Additionally, I have started a group for alternative and nontraditional families and I am a stay-at-home mom.


Catholic Values and Sexuality VS. Actual Sex Education

Catholic Values and Sexuality VS. Actual Sex Education
By Star LaBranche, blogger at Scrapbook of Truth

When I was a teenager my parents informed me that I was going to be attending a Catholic Values and Sexuality class at the church that my family attended. I had already been through several years of sex education in public school by that point and was curious to see what additional information the church was willing to impart to me. At that point I had already started to drift from the church and had begun to question that Catholic teachings that I had endured for so many years. I couldn't even imagine myself as an atheist at this point, but I was pretty sure that I wasn't a Catholic.

The class was one full day with a bunch of other bored teenagers and a married couple in their 60s as instructors. Anyone who talks about how the youth is on fire for Catholicism and they are going to save the church has clearly never been to the church I attended or any of the painfully stupid, ridiculously boring presentations that were supposed to excite me about religion. Anyway, the class started and we were soon being instructed in just what Catholics think that god wants for us when we get married.

Of course, all sex before marriage is out and wasn't even discussed. Contraception was briefly mentioned, but only to be told that it was bad and wrong and no one should use it. Natural Family Planning (NFP), otherwise known as the rhythm method, was introduced but wasn't explained. STDs weren't even talked about because when both you and your spouse are virgins then you have no fear of catching any diseases. The wedding night was discussed in detail and the whole idea that your body no longer belongs to you, but to your husband or wife was talked about glowingly. I could never get on board with the idea that my body, what I have to lug around all day, was suddenly someone else's.

Things got interesting when we started talking about abortion. We all know abortion is evil and selfish and when they discussed the procedure they went into every single gory detail about what happens to the fetus. Because something being icky is a precursor to it being morally wrong. We were given handouts about the link between breast cancer and abortion (which doesn't exist) and the link between suicide/depression and abortion (which also doesn't exist). Then we were told a cheery story about a couple who had decided to abort and then regretted it so much that they both committed suicide, leaving a note addressed to their murdered fetus. It was quite clear that if we ever got an abortion, this would happen to us if we had any conscious or humanity.

At this time in my life, I didn't know enough about abortion to refute any of these claims. My secular sex education had never covered it and it was at a time before we had the internet at my house, so I had yet to do any research of my own about it. All of the information that I had ever been given about abortion was Catholic-leaning and completely biased. At that age I was so terrified of the procedure that I thought it would never be an option for me at all because it was so barbaric.

At the end of the class they discussed things like saying no and sexual abuse. Saying no was easy. You would make Jesus cry if you made decisions about your body and sexuality and you had to remain pure for your wedding night. There was very little to it. Anyone who wanted you to break your vow of chastity was someone that you needed to break up with with a smart one liner.

The videos on sexual crimes featured young women being abused by their dads, family friends, boyfriends etc. The actresses tried to look dewy eyed and talked about how difficult it was to listen to their girlfriends talk about kissing boys when they had just been raped by their fathers. This was a time well before the sexual abuse scandal erupted in the church and looking back on it, the idea that I spent several hours listening to Catholics tell me how to avoid sexual abuse while their priests were the most cosseted and protected perpetrators of all makes me feel rather ill.

It goes without saying that there was no mention of any kind of sexuality other than heterosexual. Anyone who wasn't straight was completely whitewashed from the presentation. As far as the church was concerned, they didn't even exist and certainly weren't worth talking about. But I hadn't really been expecting a section on anyone who didn't identify as straight, so it came as no surprise.

The entire Values and Sexuality class contained nothing about the human body, how it works, or the nuts and bolts of actual sex. But why would it? We were teenagers and telling us about how sex works would have undoubtedly made us want to go out and try it, so best to keep us in the dark. I'm just thankful that the church I attended didn't have one of those ridiculous Purity Balls.

All in all, the class just backed up what I had already been taught. That sex was wrong and dirty, except in very specific, Catholic circumstances. That making your own choices regarding your body and your sexuality were evil and against god's ultimate plan for you. By the time I left the class, I was still confused about what I believed in a religious sense, but I knew that Catholic "values" weren't for me.

About the Author:
Star LaBranche is an atheist scrapbooker with an interest in women’s and gender studies, true crime, pop culture, and writing. She currently lives in the middle of nowhere with her fiance and their two dogs. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Women’s Studies, which qualifies her to write blogs about vaginas.

In her spare time she papercrafts, watches documentaries on Netflix, plays video games, and attends as many drag shows as humanly possible. Star volunteers in the community and works for scrapbooking company. Her favorite things in life are animals, cheese, learning new things, nice people and exploring the world. She currently writes for GodSwill Ministries, runs the blog Scrapbook of Truth, and guest blogs whenever she can.

Like Voldemort To Wizards: How Christian Homeschooling Made Me A Sex Ed Advocate

Like Voldemort To Wizards: How Christian Homeschooling Made Me A Sex Ed Advocate
By R.L. Stollar, co-founder of Homeschoolers Anonymous

I learned about sex because of a Boy Scout merit badge.

My older brother and I were on the way to a Boy Scouts meeting. My dad was nervous the whole time, seeming to stall until the last moment. I am not sure if this conversation would have ever happened naturally. But it did happen, if it only happened because it had to.

My brother and I were working to get our Family Life merit badge in Boy Scouts. Part of earning that badge was learning about sex. Someone had to give us "The Talk," and — since our Boy Scout troop was a primarily Christian homeschool troop — that responsibility fell on our father. To learn about sex from anyone other than one's parents was a cardinal sin in my Christian homeschool culture.

Most of the drive was awkward, because we knew we were about to get The Talk. I do not think The Talk necessarily has to be awkward, but it was for our dad. You could feel it in the air. As a result, The Talk really materialized on the 15-minute drive. Never, that is, until we pulled into the parking lot of the rundown Baptist church where our troop met. Then it was do or die time, and my dad gave us a quick summary of lovemarriagepenisvaginababy. Boom.

That was the extent of my Christian homeschool sex education growing up. It lasted less than five minutes.

I grew up in an almost alternate universe, where courtship methods of the Victorian era were popular and no one spoke of sex except in hushed or negative tones. Sex to Christian homeschoolers was like Voldemort to wizards — That Which Shall Not Be Named. I attended "purity" seminars at which homeschool celebrities like Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, urged audiences of horny teenagers to focus on God and flee that nebulous human demon called Lust.

In that universe, "abstinence only" was not an abstract concept but a concrete reality. I never learned about condoms, or how to use them. I never learned about STDs. As a male, I never learned about menstruation. That was a taboo topic; my parents referred to it as "that time of month" and all I knew was that it was something embarrassing and icky that only women talk about and men just need to know to avoid women during that time.

When I hear people arguing for abstinence-only education these days I cringe. I want to shout at the top of my lungs, "You don't really want that!" I know what that education looks like because that is the education I received. It was a sham to even call it "education." It was rather an absence of education. The so-called "abstinence" was an abstinence of knowledge about biology and empowerment about consent.

It did not help me in even a single way.

It did not discourage me from eventually having premarital sex. All it did was make me utterly ignorant of the reality of sex. It did not keep me from so-called sexual immorality. It made me incapable of acknowledging and processing my own experience of sexual abuse as a child.

As I have grown older, and both shared my story as well as heard other stories of former homeschool kids, there are so many similarities between our experiences. Sex felt like something dirty and secretive and repressed up until one's wedding day, and then magically it was supposed transform into something holy and beautiful and celebrated. Sex was something only men wanted, that was given by women in exchange for love. (I am aware now, too, that this harmful stereotype transcends Christianity and homeschooling.) Men were incapable of controlling their physical desires, always on the brink of the sexual sin of lust. So much so, that women had to carefully don the most modest of clothing to avoid causing men to "stumble." Men were also only attracted to women and women to men, thereby precluding any conversation about the existence of LGBT* individuals.

And foremost of all: sex education, that insidious tool of the evil secularists and humanists, was a weapon of Satan. It was described in classic misogynistic terms: a "temptress," a "whore of Babylon," hired by the Prince of Darkness to lead public schoolers astray. Us homeschoolers, God bless us, we were spared that temptation, as our parents took it upon themselves to raise us righteously, without sex education and its spurious ways.

But dreams run red lights and crash into the curbs of reality awfully hard.

As I hear more and more from former homeschoolers, I hear the same things I myself experienced: that what we were "spared from," what we were "blessed" to avoid, could have really helped us. No matter how hard our parents tried to keep us unstained from "the world," the world happened. We grew up. We made mistakes, got drunk, did drugs, made out, had sex; some of us were sexually abused and raped — all the things that happen outside of Christian homeschooling, too. The only difference is we had zero tools to process those things.

It is because of my very experience as a Christian homeschool kid that I am an advocate for comprehensive sex education.

I believe in comprehensive sex education because all people have the right to be empowered. I believe in comprehensive sex education because it is vitally important to know your body, respect your body and other people's bodies, and understand how to stand up against those people who both want you ignorant of your body and aim to disrespect your body.

Depriving children of that knowledge, for whatever ridiculous religious reasons, is nothing less than educational abuse. It is not pleasing to God or god or anything that is allegedly holy. Ignorance is a unholy prison. Forced ignorance is one of the most soul-crushing experiences one can have.

Children need to be educated about their bodies because that is how children learn how to respect and love them and each other's.

Children need to be educated about sexuality because sexuality is a fundamentally important part of being human.

Children need to be educated about consent because rape and sexual abuse happen in every community and every culture and you are living in a daydream if you think it will not happen in yours.

The more I learn about the universality of body-shaming, rape culture, and abuse, and the more I hear about how these things happen every day in Christian churches and conservative homeschooling communities, the more I see why sex ed is an absolute must. When we are afraid of sexuality, when we are afraid to talk bluntly and honestly and openly about our bodies and our emotions, we are giving power to those who want to take advantage of our ignorance and our silence. When we are blinded by our ideologies and unwilling to see every human being as worthy of respect and safety, we are giving power to those people advancing shame and bigotry. When we are afraid to name That Which Shall Not Be Named and speak about it plainly, we are only adding to the power of those in our communities — homeschooling, Christian, secular, and otherwise — who will abuse it.

I wish I knew about sex from something other than abuse. But my parents and my homeschooling community could not have changed that, no matter how much they wish they could.

Yet I also wish I knew how to talk about sex from something other than a Boy Scout merit badge. And that is something that my parents and my community could have done differently.

I have spent the last decade catching up on what I missed, on the lessons I never learned. It can be an awfully embarrassing process, but it is a necessary one.

About the Author:
R.L. Stollar is co-founder and Community Coordinator at Homeschoolers Anonymous, a cooperative online project by former homeschoolers. He is also a founding board member of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving homeschooling communities for future generations by educating homeschooling families about mental health and child abuse. Ryan was homeschooled from preschool through high school. He spent his high school years as a speech and debate competitor in the HSLDA-created National Christian Forensics and Communications Association and was one of the original student leaders for Communicators for Christ, now the Institute for Cultural Communicators. Through high school and college, he taught speech and debate to thousands of homeschool students across the nation with CFC conferences, a HSLDA National Leadership Retreat, Cedarville University, the University of Oregon, and elsewhere. He has a B.A. in Western philosophy and literature from Gutenberg College in Oregon and a M.A. in Eastern religions from St. John’s College in New Mexico. Ryan is the former volunteer News Editor of Eugene Daily News, a hyperlocal community news source in Oregon.

CPCs: Not a Reasonable Option

“Pregnant? Need Help?”

Have you seen these signs around your community? You might be forgiven for mistaking them as advertisements for women’s health centers – but you’d be wrong. These are advertisements for religious organizations called Crisis Pregnancy Centers and they are the happy recipients of your tax dollars.

Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) are anti-choice “fake clinics” which exist solely to dissuade women from having abortions and, more often than not, are run by churches and religious organizations. They often advertise falsely in phone listings as “abortion services” or “family planning services” but the only service most provide are drugstore pregnancy tests and, in limited cases, an ultrasound. In fact, very, very few CPCs even have medically trained staff, choosing to rely instead on church volunteers. Many CPCs have been caught in the act of giving out false medical information and acting coercively, all in the name of God and a woman’s traditional role. Some CPCs have deceptive sounding names such as “A Woman’s Choice” and women often find themselves calling what they think is a clinic or an abortion provider only to find that the person on the other end of the line refuses to discuss abortion or contraception unless the woman comes in first, “just to talk”. All of this subterfuge is meant to trick women into visiting the center so that more pressure can be brought to bear.

I visited a Crisis Pregnancy Center as a teenager and found out very quickly that the main focus was evangelizing. I was greeted by what I now know was a volunteer who led me to a private room and had me give a urine sample. She placed the sample on her desk, popped in a drugstore test stick and picked up a heavy bible. She told me she wanted to pass the time by reading scripture to me. I sat and listened politely and then told her I was non-religious. She insisted on praying with me anyway and then read the result of my test – negative. She then asked me if I used contraception and told me that condoms don’t really work and that I was better off just not having sex at all. With that, I was released.

My friend *Katie was not so lucky. Years later she visited the same CPC and her test was positive. Instead of offering support to a pregnant teen, the center pressured her to give the baby up once it was born. Katie was adamant that she wanted to raise the baby herself but the volunteers at the CPC had already pulled out a list of eager couples and continued to pressure her with horror stories of teen parenthood. She was finally able to leave and is now a happy mother.

Not content with simply defunding Planned Parenthood, many conservative states and even the federal government are openly giving taxpayer dollars to Crisis Pregnancy Centers. In fact, in 2010 the Obama administration gave Care Net, one of the largest purveyors of CPCs a “capacity building” grant, despite the fact that the organization is strictly a proselytizing entity which does not provide family planning services and which has an explicit “Christian only” hiring practice.

State and local government give further support to these religious centers by openly endorsing them in ways that seem innocuous to those who don’t know what CPCs do. The Virginia Department of Health lists Crisis Pregnancy Centers in its online publication, A Virginia Guide to Family Planning, Genetics and Social Services while leaving unmentioned any family planning clinics.  The guide even mentions Colonial Heights Baptist Church as a family planning resource!

Government funding of CPCs is clearly a violation of the separation clause of the first amendment. In 2011, I began a campaign to get the Virginia Department of Health to stop endorsing CPCs through its guide and you can get active in your state too. Check out your state and city health departments to see whether they endorse CPCs and start a campaign. You might also want to find out who is teaching sex education in your city’s schools. In some states, sex education teachers are not required to be certified and anyone can volunteer to teach it and many churches see this as a great opportunity to send in one of their own. You can also fight back by using this handy toolkit to document false advertising practices used by CPCs.

Finally, you can get educated. It’s astonishing how many people are unaware of CPCs or don’t realize the intensely religious nature of what goes on behind their doors. Consider hosting a screening of 12th and Delaware in your community to let everyone see firsthand and objectively what CPCs are all about and the damage they do to women’s lives.

*Name has been changed

Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson

Richmond (VA) Clinic Defense

[email protected]