The sex ed offered at my high school was far above the grade that most students are entitled to in this country, which is something that makes me seethe with rage. I have pretty mixed thoughts about single sex education and my high school in particular, but after making it through six years at an all-girls school I will tell you one thing: the sex ed I received at that single sex looney bin was incredible, and most of it happened outside the classroom.
I took health class for a whole semester in ninth grade, in which we covered–among other things–drug education, eating disorders, a live birth video, body image, and reproductive health. The sex ed was completely clinical–after the first day when our health teacher told us a funny story about a girl being uncomfortable with the word “vagina,” I never heard another euphemism come out of her mouth. As a result, I have exactly no trouble using clinical words for anything sex related at all–it’s called a vagina so I’m not going to call it my lady garden. The curriculum was detailed and expansive–one day we were shown what a rape kit entailed. We passed around a speculum, and nobody got nervous and dropped it. We were shown every single method of birth control known to man and how to use them, and nobody giggled. I did try to make a paper airplane out of a dental dam, though, but that was just for laughs. Obviously, it didn’t fly.
Sure, the curriculum itself wasn’t dependent on my high school being an all girls school–my high school was progressive, secular, privileged and private, meaning that the school had the freedom to teach sex ed according to their own curriculum, had the financial resources to effectively teach, and a liberal student body willing and wanting to learn. But I can’t say I would have had the same experience at a coed school.
Take for instance, my progressive, secular, and private coed elementary school. We had sex ed (more like puberty training) in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade if memory serves. The other girls and I sat in our classes feeling ashamed–ashamed of our bodies as they were in their prepubescent form and growing more and more ashamed of what they’d become. Every time the teacher said the word vagina, kids made faces of disgust, while we only giggled at penis. Certainly this had a lot to do with our age, but there was a definite gender imbalance. Menstruation was gross, and we were shepherded into a room to learn about the mechanics of it so the boys wouldn’t have to hear (they loudly voiced their concern that we’d start bleeding everywhere, and nobody corrected them. To this day, I imagine them thinking of menstruation as an unstoppable flood, soaking everyone in its path). I absolutely remember being in the room when wet dreams were explained, so I’m not sure who made the decision that our fluids were more disgusting than theirs. I was horrified by the changes in my body and embarrassed that anyone would catch onto my training bra. To contrast: at my high school (which I entered in the seventh grade at age 12), I could walk around with tampons falling out of literally every single pocket and the only thing anyone would ever say was “Hey Jules, you dropped a tampon.” Loudly. My friends at coed schools mastered the tampon-up-your-sleeve trick.
There were things I couldn’t learn in sex ed, and so I learned from my female classmates. For background, my school had a bizarre social structure common at all girls schools and lacked a definitive social hierarchy. Sure, we weren’t blind and could easily tell who would have been at the top of the food chain at a “normal” school, but cliques weren’t exclusive and basically everyone talked to each other. And so nothing prepared me for a life of sexual goings on like talking to other girls about sex stuff. If you’re thinking it was salacious it wasn’t–we mostly used clinical words and were very matter-of-fact. I learned about the intricacies of sex and intimacy in a way that I couldn’t in a classroom or coed environment– how to ask for what I wanted, how to fake an orgasm, and what a sexual fantasy was. No one was around to monopolize the masturbation conversation, so we had it. Jerking off and sex talk wasn’t the realm of boys–it was all ours.
By far the most important thing that I learned was about consent. In my sex ed class, we certainly covered rape and assault in detail, but the class fell a bit short in terms of consent. From hanging out in our student lounge, I learned about consent in a way that I hadn’t put together despite being well educated about rape: consent is not the absence of no but the presence of yes. We had comfortable and open conversations about desire that I simply cannot imagine having around male friends and classmates at that age, and the idea of owning your own desire wasn’t foreign to me because of it.
Certainly a lot of this is indicative of not just the all girls school facet, but privilege. I’m not going to lie to you and say I had a normal high school experience–it was a prep school of affluent girls who had the education and the money to find their own agency in their teens. Our privilege allowed us to have the safe space to talk about sex, to get excellent academic information, and to have the training to think critically about it. That privilege is an important factor that shouldn’t be overlooked. However, I had many friends in similar academic situations to mine, where the only real difference was coed versus single sex. Not a one of them had an experience like mine. Most of them still struggle to say the word vagina.
I spent ages 12-18 in an environment where I didn’t have to hate my body, or rather, to hate my femaleness. I faced the same body pressure that anyone else would and struggled with an eating disorder for years–single sex education isn’t a cure all, and I’m unconvinced that it’s even the best way to educate young women. But after a few years of being there having entered with the knowledge that my body was gross, it stopped occurring to me to hate being female. I had no qualms about what my body does, what menstruation is, or having an apparently disgusting vagina. And because my femaleness wasn’t something to be ashamed of, I didn’t have to be ashamed of my role in sex, either. It made me open to learning–both formally and informally–and I learned more than I ever could from just flailing on my own.
Photo: Vibrant Image Studio/Shutterstock, Howard Klaaste/Shutterstock