Things You Should’ve Learned in Sex-Ed (But Probably Didn’t)

Writing by Sophie Pellegrini // Illustration by Lily Cuyler

I remember high school sex-ed as the most awkward unit in health class, but I don’t remember learning much. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned a lot through personal experience and the experiences of others that I strongly believe should’ve been taught in sex-ed. Things that are truly important. So I compiled a list of (some of) the things I wish had been discussed in sex-ed. PS: It’s just as important that boys learn this as well as girls.

1.     Urinary tract infections. It’s not an STI—you can get a UTI whether or not you’re sexually active. The most common symptoms include a burning sensation when urinating, and increased frequency of the urge to pee. UTIs are often treated with antibiotics, though less severe UTI’s clear up with increased water to flush the system. Drinking lots of water and cranberry juice also helps a lot. Girls should learn that if they are sexually active, one of the top ways to prevent UTIs is to pee after having vaginally penetrative intercourse. Developing a habit of going to the toilet after sex is so simple, and well worth it. PS: Latex allergies can cause UTIs.

2.     More useful information about STIs. Yeah, my health teacher told us that the only way to avoid an STI is abstinence, and the next best thing is using condoms. While this is true, it’s not enough information for girls to know. When it comes to STIs, there’s a lot to cover. But here are some things I think all young girls should REALLY understand by the end of sex-ed:

  • You don’t always know if you have an STI, which means your partner might not know either. Symptoms aren’t always noticeable, or there may be no active symptoms at all. So if you’re opting out of using a condom because he/she “looks normal,” think twice.
  • Penetrative vaginal sex is not the only way to receive or pass an STI. Oral sex and anal sex are fair game too.
  • You can get tested for STIs at clinics like Planned Parenthood or at your OB-GYN (Obstetrics and gynaecology). You can also often get tests at your student wellness centers at school, or at your general practitioner. But it’s important to ask. DON’T assume that you’re being tested through a physical exam or PAP smear at the OB-GYN, and be sure to ask for a full panel if you want one! STI tests require blood samples, swabs, or a urine test.
  • There is no shame in getting tested for STIs. In fact, it’s the responsible thing to do. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask.
  • If you do have an STI, you have nothing to be ashamed of. There are a lot of destructive stigmas attached to STIs, and sex-ed is a time that those stigmas should be banished, but unfortunately, it seems to be when a lot of them take shape. Having an STI does not lessen your self-worth, make you dirty, or mean you are promiscuous. Did you know that you can get herpes (one of the most common STIs) even if you are in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship?

3.     How to handle a pregnancy scare. Sex-ed hammers home the notion that teen pregnancy sucks, and the ways to avoid it, but that’s it. Ignoring the fact that pregnancy scares happen isn’t helping anyone, and talking about them isn’t going to cause more teens to have careless sex. If you are worried you are pregnant, my advice is to get a home test ASAP. The longer you wait, the more your head will spin and the more you will worry, probably unnecessarily. Whether or not you tell your partner about the scare (before anything is confirmed) is up to you and your judgment of your relationship. But it would be wise to find a friend, parent, sibling, or other trusted confidant to tell if you’re feeling really flustered—pregnancy scares can be something scary to take on alone, and regardless of the results, they may bring up a lot of emotions.

4.  The actual anatomical build of your genitals, and what that can mean for your sexuality/sex life. The number of girls and women who don’t understand what’s going on between their legs is alarming. Do you know what you’re actually referring to when you reference your “vagina” (hint: it’s not the whole genital system down there)? What (and where) exactly is your clitoris? Girls should learn that sexual satisfaction is most commonly achieved through clitoral stimulation. So if you’re just having penetrative vaginal sex and not having an orgasm, this may be the reason! Girls should be encouraged to explore their “private parts” without fear of shame or judgment. Take a look at this site if you’re interested in learning more.

5. And on that note: female orgasm. Honestly, I can’t even remember this being mentioned in my sex-ed class, but if it was, it was brief. In today’s culture, orgasms are often treated as something reserved for men, and that’s bullshit. Girls should learn that, yes, we can orgasm too, and that our orgasms are just as important as males’. Plus, girls should learn what it might feel like to have an orgasm. It’s a little less straightforward than a male’s orgasm.

6.     How to perform a self-breast exam. Screw breast cancer. Take a look ladies!

7.     How to make condoms more appealing and enjoyable. We were always told to use condoms, but never how to use them in a way that is enjoyable for both partners, probably due to a fear that this would increase the number of sexually active teens. I don’t believe in this fear, and furthermore, I believe that learning how to enjoy condoms would increase condom use amongst the teens that are already sexually active. Unfortunately, the desire to have enjoyable sex often trumps the fear of STIs and pregnancy because the latter are easier to mentally distance yourself from, so just warning high school students about STIs and pregnancy may not be enough. Here are some things I think should be discussed:

  • Don’t just pick the type of condom arbitrarily. A good fit is essential to both partners’ enjoyment.
  • Free condoms are great (because they’re free!) but they’re also probably pretty cheap (…because they’re free). Sometimes, schools and organizations offer condoms for free, which is awesome, and it’s better to use those condoms than no condom, BUT it’s important to know that these condoms aren’t likely to be the most enjoyable. They’re also probably more liable to breaking, because they are more cheaply made. The reality is, “splurging” on quality condoms is pretty worthwhile.
  • Latex allergies do exist! Symptoms are a rash (anywhere on the body), runny nose, hives, and tightness in chest. Fortunately, there are alternatives to latex condoms (such as non latex condoms found here).
  • Keeping condoms somewhere accessible can make things much easier. When talking to a friend after she first slept with a new partner, she said the most awkward part was waiting for him to rummage around and find a condom.
  • An open mind is key. Teens have a lot to benefit from by giving condoms a try and not basing their judgments on that first try. PS: If you convince yourself or your partner that sex just won’t be as good with a condom, you’re likely to confirm this self-fulfilling prophecy.

8.     The difference between gender and sex. It’s so important to understand this. Put simply, sex is the biological makeup of a person’s reproductive anatomy. Gender is a socially constructed notion related to societal standards of roles, behaviors, and attitudes for the different sexes. I also wish we’d talked about how these things aren’t black and white. High school is the time that we should be familiarized with terms like “intersex” and “transsexual.” Along those lines, it should be clarified that “transgender” does not imply “homosexual.” But more on this coming to Tigress from Freya soon.

9.     The range of normalcy for the appearance of breasts, vulvas, and penises! The diagrams we were showed were the “ideal” or “average” body parts. If anything, the focus was reserved to how penis size varies. But what about the fact that labia vary in size too? And girls should know off the bat that their breasts probably won’t be symmetrical. Unrealistic standards are harmful to boys and girls alike.

10. What to expect at the OB-GYN. That first appointment can be really scary, but it doesn’t have to be. Personally, I wish I had learned what a pap smear was in sex-ed. I believe that the earlier we are familiarized ourselves with these things, the less scary they will be when we actually confront them.

11. Female masturbation. Yes, it exists. Yes, we do it. Yes, that’s okay. And NO, masturbation doesn’t make you a freak, it doesn’t make you a nympho, it doesn’t mean you’re destined to be alone, and it won’t make your hands fall off. I wish we had been encouraged to explore our sexualities and sexual desires. They’re 100% normal and 100% healthy. And, believe it or not, it can actually be GOOD for you. Instead, girls often learn that masturbation is something reserved for males, like orgasms.

12. And on a similar note, I wish we talked about how sexuality and sex drive is something that we SHOULD be curious about and that we should explore. As men AND women. It’s natural, and it’s healthy. Sex drives should not be exclusionary to females, and sex drive varies from person to person within each sex/gender. There is no right and wrong. When you’re with the right person, sex can feel great and be fun, and we can want to do it. But it’s also okay if you aren’t interested. Abstinence and sexual activities are personal choices, and there is no reason to be embarrassed or ashamed about either.


Lily Cuyler

Lily is an artist who can be found on Flickr and Tumblr.

Sophie Pellegrini

Sophie Pellegrini is the Co-Founder and Artistic & Creative Director of Ramona Magazine for Girls. She is a 25-year-old photographer and wilderness therapy field guide in Colorado. She loves crafting, playing acoustic guitar, 90s music, the smell of summer, making lists, a good nap, cuddly animals, and the cold side of the pillow. Follow Sophie on her website and on Instagram.

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