The Coitus Confusion: Thrusting through America’s Inconsistencies in Sex Ed


The light switches flipped down. Polite hellos welcomed fifth-grade daughters and their mothers as they filed in pairs into the cold cafeteria. A faint, Clorox sting emanated from the eggshell-white asylum’s tile floor, perhaps a gesture to impress the school’s guests. Their male counterparts herded into the library alongside their fathers like cattle. A dad’s hand reached out for his son’s shoulder as a sign of support, his firm grip flushing blushed cheeks.

In just one thin stream of projected light displaying the forecast that is puberty, everything changed.

As if a goodie bag full of tampons and deodorant could curve the vex of mom’s avoidant glances. As if awkward giggles watching a condom violate a banana was going to restore any recess-minded innocence.

We all remember the school board’s attempt at teaching us a thing or two about “the birds and the bees.”

Or do we?

“At best, maybe you get to learn about the condom on the banana or the cucumber kind of thing,” Dr. Shira Tarrant, an author and associate professor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Cal State Long Beach, said.

The third-wave feminist has spoken out and written four books on gender, sex and politics. Her latest installment, “New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics and the Law,” will be releasing this summer.

“Mostly my students said that they learned about STIs and the whole ‘This Could Happen to You’ lecture [in elementary school],” the political scientist continued. “Knowing about condoms is important. Knowing about STI’s is important—but that’s like the bare minimum.”

According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 22 states and the District of Columbia require public school to even approach the subject of sex education as of April 2015. Two of the states mentioned leave instruction on HIV out of the curriculum and up to students to unearth, most likely on a curiosity-induced Google search.

But simply defining what “sex education” is seems to be the gateway to America’s coitus confusion.

The California Department of Education’s interpretation allows for the “knowledge and skills necessary to protect his or her health from unintended pregnancy or STDs” and the encouragement of students “to develop healthy attitudes” on topics like body image, dating and sexual orientation.

In Texas, sex education courses aren’t required.

For these southern adolescents, sex-related education is served in the form of an Abstinence Education Program provided by the Department of State Health Services.

A worksheet distributed in the Canyon Independent School District of Canyon, Texas encourages students to “stay like a new toothbrush, wrapped up and unused,” setting non-virgins on the same shelf with undesirable chewed pieces of gum, according to the Huffington Post.

“What we’re generically calling sex is penis-in-vagina intercourse; that’s a really limited conversation,” Tarrant said. “We’re only talking about heterosexual intercourse. I don’t know how we can call that sex education. We’re not talking about a full variety of sexual activities—it’s a rip off. ”

And of the 33 states that mandate HIV education, 13 of them only implement the know-how of sexually transmitted disease, exempting basic sex education from legal guidelines.

“Sex education has to truly go beyond just some punctual conversation about condoms and about STIs; we really need to be talking about sexual pleasure, sexual consent, sexual assault,” Tarrant said. “[We need to revamp the curriculum] so that we’re … talking to everybody in the room about what consent looks and sounds like so that the responsibility doesn’t fall on women.”

Even for states that provide sex education, only 13 of them require that the information given in sex education courses be medically and factually accurate, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Fast forward to last Thursday, where you’re smashed in the back of a pickup truck for a third-date, backseat tryst. Hands are everywhere. Clothes are everywhere.

As fingers glide between spread thighs and chests kiss with each lunge of the hips, your brain begins to purge red flags.

Do they have a condom? Do I have a condom? Have they been tested? I wonder how many people they’ve slept with. Is this safe? Should we wait? Is this what I want?

“The more we know ourselves and our own lives,” Tarrant said. “The more clearly we can understand what we want to consent to and what we do not want to consent to.”

When the lesson plan involves “clitoris-y tests” and analyzing pornography with your pants on amongst your peers, creating an honest, safe environment is key, Tarrant explained. Regardless of the age and in-tune with comfort levels, she believes that kids should start learning about sex once they start asking.

“If we’re not having those conversations [while] feeling supported, then we’re sending people out with these expectations that people magically know how to have great sex,” Tarrant said. “There are so many advantages [to being sexually aware:] Sexual health. Knowing oneself. Safer sex. Not to mention having a full, wonderful, robust and pleasurable sex life.”

  1. Cris Battaglia

Junior, kinesiology major

“Parents-wise—my parents never really told me anything about that. We had to take a class in fifth grade and watch a video. Then we had to take a mandatory health class in ninth grade. Other than that, it was just like basic health, not like anything aside from that. I honestly didn’t know what sex was until sixth grade when I watched that video, which is weird, I know.

I went to a Catholic school, so they put us in separate rooms. They got like goodie bags with tampons and a piece of candy, and we got nothing.”

  1. Sarah Davis

Senior, creative writing

“I learned in school but even before school I was kind of introduced to it through abuse, so I kind of knew about that. So by the time I was in 7th grade and they taught us about sex, I kind of already knew. It was very surprising to me. I didn’t know what was happening. It’s very sudden when you’re abused especially at a young age, as a child because you don’t know anything about that.”

  1. Jennie o’Rourke

Senior, creative writing

“I used to hear my parents knock every Sunday morning.

I think it was in fifth or sixth grade health class. There’s a difference though. There’s the existence of sex and the application of it. They taught us minorly about reproduction, but they kept the [boys and girls] separate. They didn’t have the slide picture of the schlong until the sixth grade. We learned about periods and like secondary sexual growth, like growing of breasts, widening of hips and growing pubic hair. In sixth grade, they talked about what intercourse is and what it actually means. My teacher had us all in the room together and said, “Alright guys, let’s say it all together, ‘penis, penis, penis, penis, vagina, vagina, vagina, vagina’ Get all your laughs out now, because it’s a real thing and it’s really not that funny of a word.””

  1. Justine VanMaanen

Senior, rhetoric composition

“Well I caught my dad watching porn and I was really young, I was probably like six, or seven. That was my first introduction to it so it was kind of overwhelming. I have older siblings, so I learned from them as well before having a health class. They’re just like four to five years older.

He was in the living room and it was night time. We were all supposed to be in bed. I came out and I kind of hid behind the chair and watched a little bit of it and then I was just like, grossed out and went back in my room. I just kind of snuck out. This was too much. Then I found a video underneath the couch, with a cover. ”

  1. Zaira Gomez

Freshman, marine biology

“It’s probably from TV, because my parents often watched telenovelas. I never watched those kind of scenes. I would kind of know what was happening. I remember specifically, like in the Titanic, I never saw him actually drawing her naked or whatever until I was in school. They were always like, “you need to close your eyes!” It was always things like that. I never saw it, but I always had an idea of what was happening because my parents wouldn’t let me see it.”

  1. Elisabeth Gory

Sophomore, communications studies

“I learned about sex mainly from movies and TV shows but also kind of just talking with friends when you’re talking about life stuff. I still don’t talk about sex with [my siblings].”

  1. Dustin Figueroa

5th year, mechanical engineering

“I had ‘the Talk.’ I had it with my mom, which was interesting. I have no idea how young I was, old enough to remember unfortunately. She sat me down in the living room and I just remember the diagram. It wasn’t like insert here, it was like female and ovaries and then … everything else. I was freaking out.”

  1. Lance Biddulph

Senior, philosophy

“Not at all. I never really paid a lot of attention to it. After coming to college and mentioning what you said, being separated from women, why was that the case?  I never really cared. I was never much of a “cooties-boy” but I think it wasn’t until high school. In high school, I took a college-level health course and that’s when I was kind of like, “Oh ... well that’s cool.” I don’t know [how it took so long to learn about sex education]. I grew up in a family full of women. Maybe it’s because women just don’t stress it. Maybe if I grew up with way more men or a father, then maybe it would be different. If people would say that they had a crush on someone, it was just funny. I never really thought they meant anything more by it. So, I actually got a legitimate education in it, because I actually took a class that taught it! I guess I was kind of lucky I went so many years without experimenting