A while ago on Twitter, I joined in a conversation on the hashtag #whatyounevertaught. Started by @siwanclark, the hashtag discussed experiences with sexual and reproductive health education (“sex ed” from here on), what people wished they had learned and ultimately what could’ve been done better. It reminded me of the first time I saw a naked woman.
I was in Primary Four, and it was a shock. Here, in my house, was a book with an actual, naked woman on the cover! I remember my parents were in the kitchen making dinner when I slipped it from its glass-fronted shelf and under my bed.
I can’t remember what the book was called, but it turned out to be a sex ed book for women. I’d like to think my parents started preparing for my education before I was actually conceived, with the end result being them buying this book just in case they’d had a cis girl. Over the next few nights, I learned about periods and pregnancy, the anatomy of a cis woman’s genitals, and a lot about contraception and safe sex.
I sometimes wonder what it would’ve been like if I’d encountered a book meant for boys and men, though. Perhaps I’d have learned that getting an erection doesn’t automatically mean ejaculating (I was deathly afraid of this during puberty). Perhaps I’d have learned that male virginity wasn’t something shameful and neither was male sexual desire. Perhaps I’d have learned to handle my first extremely unhealthy relationship better.
You see, we don’t teach boys enough about sex. Nobody teaches boys to get consent (or that it’s okay not to give it). Nobody teaches boys that they don’t need to lose their virginity to be men. Nobody teaches boys that their body isn’t the only thing they need to be, or that can be, attractive. Boys internalise sexism, coercion and body shaming as part of growing up. Their relationships are modeled after the frequently unhealthy ideals they see in the media. They often become Nice Guys™ or abusers. They suffer in silence when victimised by their partners.
I’ve had enough of this. Boys and men should not need to learn about sex and relationships the hard way. So, here are five ways we could make sex ed better for boys:
1) Sex- and body-positive, consent-focused education.
Sex-positivity means not treating sex as either shameful or necessary, while body-positivity means accepting of a range of physical bodies. Consent-focused education, meanwhile, would look like teaching boys that only yes means yes (and that they have the ability and right to say no, too).
2) The acknowledgement of more than just cis genders and heterosexual orientations.
In the context of sex ed for boys, this would mean teaching those who were were assigned at birth and identify as male that transgender and non-binary (neither/both male or female) people exist, that it’s okay for people to not identify as their assigned gender, and that it’s normal to be attracted to people of any gender and more than one gender at once.
3) Teaching safer sex.
This would mean more than just shouting “abstinence!” at boys. This would also mean more than just teaching boys how to use condoms or letting them know that the pill exists; it would include alternate forms of contraception and non-penetrative forms of sex.
Like me, though, most boys don’t have healthy sex ed syllabi tailored specifically for them, and end up internalising problematic behaviours. Which is why we also need:
4) Reproductive choice education.
For boys, this would involve removing anti-choice messages from the curriculum (for example, “Tiny Tim”, an unrealistic portrayal of abortion as forced childbirth). This would involve teaching boys that everyone has a right to decide what they do with their body, and that a decision on whether to terminate a pregnancy is ultimately up to the person hosting it in their body.
5) Teaching boys about the emotional side of relationships and breaking up.
We need to teach them about their emotions (and that it’s okay to be emotional) and what they could possibly feel before, during, and after a relationship. We need to bust the myths that boys are supposed to be stoic and unemotional, that boys are or should only be looking for one thing in a relationship, and that rejection or the failure of a relationship is unacceptable.
Unlike me, not every boy has the privilege of a comprehensive, shame-free book on sex ed, even one written for cis women. Like me, though, most boys don’t have healthy sex ed syllabi tailored specifically for them, and end up internalising problematic behaviours. I’m not an expert on sex ed, but I’m a young man who’s lived through the system and come out in one piece. This list isn’t complete, but we need to help our less privileged brothers out.
This is how we start.
This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project, and has been reprinted with permission.