Applying Sex Ed Lessons in the Real World
Originally Published: April 23, 2021
Revised: July 16, 2021
I received a pretty good sex education in high school, and I thought I had the lessons down pat. Make sure to obtain consent? Check! Use condoms for safer sex? Check! It wasn’t until I encountered situations with a pressuring partner that I realized how actually applying those lessons can be more complicated than they might sound when you’re sitting in a classroom.
It wasn’t until I encountered situations with a pressuring partner that I realized how actually applying sex ed lessons can be more complicated than they might sound when you’re sitting in a classroom.
From navigating gray areas in consent to getting a partner to wear a condom, let’s talk about some common sex ed lessons, what can happen when you try to apply them in the real world and why it’s so important to learn how to communicate—about consent, condoms and more.
The Nuances of Consent
First up? Consent. When taught in sex ed, consent might seem straightforward: proceed if the other person says “yes” (except when they’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol, in which case they cannot consent) and don’t if they say “no.” But it’s difficult to capture all the nuances of consent, and sex ed classes vary in how, if at all, they do this.
“I just don’t think I learned anything in sex ed about consent,” says Mia, 19, of Cambridge, MA. “The world is much more gray than the simple scenarios they try to offer.” She believes that sex ed should encourage teens to be more proactive in asking for consent. “The pressure absolutely shouldn’t be on people to be outspoken in saying no,” she says. “That’s flirting with victim blaming.”
Mia brings up an interesting point. When we learn about consent, it’s important to not just place the responsibility on someone to say no. For instance, could you be pressuring your partner and not even realize it? What should you do if you’re unsure whether your partner is truly consenting? Reassure them that you will respect whatever boundaries they have and that it will not change how you think of them. You should not have to compel a partner to say yes.
Similarly, if you’re unsure whether you are truly ready or are being pressured to do something sexual, ask yourself if you’re afraid of what your partner’s reaction would be if you were to say no. It’s a good idea to figure out what you are and aren’t comfortable with, which makes it easier to communicate your needs with someone else. Sex ed should encourage teens to routinely check in with themselves and feel O.K. talking about their comfort level.
An Ongoing Conversation
As I mentioned above, another important concept not talked about enough in sex ed is communication. Ongoing check-ins about consent are important even for couples in long-term relationships.
“When we first started having sex, we checked in and asked for consent quite often,” says Alex, 16, of Maplewood, NJ. “However, as time progressed, we fell out of the habit, due to the fact that whenever we asked, we were both always comfortable and in the mood.” Alex explained that this led to instances where boundaries were overstepped—not because they didn’t understand consent, but because they had gotten used to not asking for consent and sometimes misread nonverbal cues.
If it seems tedious to ask for consent before every action, have an honest conversation beforehand. “It’s important to have a conversation with your partner about each other’s boundaries, including nonverbal signs of being uninterested and what is necessary for you both as a couple to ensure true consent,” says Alex. Miscommunication can still happen. Address this without judgment, and figure out together how to better communicate in the future. Think of consent as an ongoing conversation rather than a one-time question and answer.
When Your Partner Won’t Wear a Condom
Another thing I learned about in sex ed was condoms. Thanks to sex ed, I knew about the importance of protected sex and how great condoms are at preventing both sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unintended pregnancy. The concept of safer sex seemed so simple: when having sex, use protection!
Then, my first boyfriend turned out to be against using condoms. I realized that I had no idea how to deal with this. Although I knew that I should use condoms, I didn’t know how to challenge his excuses for not wanting to wear them. I felt guilty for being “difficult” and was afraid of losing his interest.
Looking back, I realize that his excuses were invalid reasons to take any risks. I wish sex ed had emphasized that it is not OK for a partner to ask you to sacrifice your comfort and/or safety or for you to feel pressured into decisions like this. It also would’ve been helpful to know some common excuses used to avoid wearing condoms and why they are baloney:
- Excuse #1: “Condoms don’t fit me.” There are various sizes of condoms to fit length and especially girth (the measurement around the penis). You can also consider internal condoms, which are FDA-approved for use in the vagina; people sometimes also use them for anal sex.
- Excuse #2: “It feels better without a condom.” Using protection means that you can enjoy the moment without worrying about possible STDs and unintended pregnancy. And there are brands of ultra-thin condoms that feel less like you’re using a condom.
- Excuse #3: “I can just pull out.” According to Planned Parenthood, there is a lot of room for error when relying on the withdrawal method. About one in five people who use it get pregnant every year. Plus, it does not protect against STDs. Condoms are 98 percent effective with perfect use and 85 percent effective with typical use.
- Excuse #4: “I don’t have any.” Condoms are widely available online as well as in drugstores and supermarkets. They require no prescription or age minimum to purchase. You can even score free ones at health clinics and in some schools! If you don’t have a condom in the heat of the moment, there are other ways to be sexually intimate that don’t require protection against unintended pregnancy and STDs.
Be clear and firm, and remind your partner of the risks. Is forgoing condoms really worth it? Alex reminds us that, “If you are uncomfortable with not using a condom, you don’t need to have a reason, just saying no should be sufficient.” You are being responsible, and if your partner cannot recognize that, know that the “difficult” person is not you.
Communication Is Key
Communication can be challenging when you’re afraid your partner might lose interest if you insist on what you want or need. It’s important that sex ed covers how couples can discuss and resolve issues, so they can reach safe, healthy solutions. For example, Ethan, 19, of New Brunswick, NJ, knew about the importance of protection but hesitated to use condoms.
“I was worried if I didn’t feel anything with a condom, I wouldn’t be able to perform very well,” he says. An honest conversation with his partner could help them find a way to have enjoyable and safer sex—by trying thinner condoms, for example.
Whether it’s discussing consent or dealing with someone who refuses to wear a condom, it’s valuable to rehearse what to do or say in scenarios like these so that you are better prepared to handle them if they come up. Some sex ed classes will cover how to have these kinds of conversations, and some will not address them at all. There’s quite a range in terms of what is covered in sex ed classes. Max, 19, of Wooster, OH, believes he would have had better communication skills in relationships and avoided a lot of headaches if sex ed included “techniques that can help with problem-solving or handling interpersonal disputes between partners.”
Finally, you can be the most attentive student in sex ed, but the lessons will fall flat if you don’t know how to apply them. While it’s nearly impossible to anticipate every complexity that might come up around sex in real life, comprehensive sex ed is important because it addresses many of them. Learning about sex ed topics in the context of the complicated real world would help teens navigate real-life situations so much better.
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