Sex education needs work, says Brandeis professor

November 8, 2019

Students are unhappy with their sex education, according to a talk by Professor Phoebe Schnitzer, the women’s studies resource center resident scholar, on Thursday, Nov. 7, where Schnitzer discussed her research and findings in sex education. Immediately following was a talk from graduating senior Makayla (M.K.) Richards, who shared her own findings. 

“Sex ed is a product of its times,” said Schnitzer.

Schnitzer started the event by discussing her own dissatisfaction with her sex education. She said that when she was young, her class was only shown a video about menstruation. She followed by sharing a statistic. According to her, 57 percent of high schoolers will have had sex before they graduate. 

She continued with the research that this statistic inspired her to pursue. In spring 2017, Schnitzer conducted a research survey studying how college students felt about the sex education they had received in their lifetime. 

Her research showed that while some students were happy with their sex education, the majority were not. Two-thirds of the sample said that the teachers used scare tactics to try to prevent them from having sex. Students said that teachers showed gruesome photos and spoke about the deadly consequences of STIs (while offering little to no information on treatment and prevention). Teachers also went graphically into the pain and effects of childbirth, from discussing potential school dropouts to showing videos of childbirth, according to the results of the research.

Students were being told not to have sex as the only way to prevent consequences, rather than being told prevention methods, according to the lecture.

Additionally, the topics that students were interested in were not touched upon openly and respectfully, said Schnitzer, according to the results. For both men and women, the most desired content from a sex ed class was how sex actually worked, said Schnitzer. She found that it was very infrequently taught. 

Schnitzer’s research was based on a non-random sample of a majority of white students from New England who were first generation college students to conduct her research. Though only eight of her group of over 200 students went to religious schools, half reported having a Catholic background. Additionally, two-thirds of the sample was comprised of women, with only six students identifying as non-binary. 

Schnitzer shared that there were three types of questions asked in the survey: questions about where they found information about sex education, about their experiences with sex education in schools and about what they thought an ideal sex education class would look like. 

Another topic of interest that was often ignored was non-heterosexual sex. Students in the survey found LGBT sex education to be ignored or inaccurate. 

Abstinence was prevelant in over three-fourths of the students’ sex ed courses, yet this was a topic many students in the study said they felt they needed less. 

When looking at other potential outlets of information about sex, her research showed that many listed their mother or their parents as providers. However, not a single participant wrote that their father was a source of information. 

She continued by mentioning that while fathers are not cited, pornography is, which was a topic of concern for her, due to the frequent degradation of women in pornography. 

Concluding her speech, she said, “risk doesn’t have to be ignored to have pleasure, and pleasure doesn’t have to be irresponsible.” 

Richards followed by discussing common misconceptions and issues in today’s society regarding sex education. She emphasized the need for body literacy, which she defines as the understanding of one’s own body, as well as other bodies one might interact with. 

She also took a moment to acknowledge asexuality and aromanticism, calling them both completely valid identities. A handout that was placed on each chair before the panel started defines asexuality as “someone who does not experience or experiences very little sexual attraction” and aromantic as “someone who doesn’t experience a romantic attraction.” She argued that they should have “ample consideration” in discussing sex ed. 

Richards then switched the focus to pleasure in sex. She said that while men often have a better time in bed, the women have a much higher “pleasure potential” in terms of nerves within genitals, because the clitoris has 8000 nerves while the tip of the penis has only 4000. Additionally, women are four times as likely to say that they had unpleasurable sex in the past year than men, she said. She continued by saying that men are significantly more likely to orgasm than women, but that this statistic does not ring true for LGBT relationships. 

Her ideal sex education class would not be separated by gender, since the spectrum is so wide and because the information is useful for all. Understanding how other bodies work, body literacy, is something that all will need, she argued. Her class would also be “queer inclusive.” 

She concluded by saying “a healthy sex life includes clear communication.” The discussion concluded with a Q&A with both Richards and Schnitzer.

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