This originally appeared on Alternet. Republished here with permission.
Thanks to America’s schizoid attitude toward sex, we get the wrong message about some essential relationship and sex issues.
Most Americans, parents included, support the idea of comprehensive sex education. But, as Americans slowly wean themselves off the failure that was “abstinence-only education,” few people are asking if comprehensive sex education is comprehensive enough. Sadly, most comprehensive sex education programs tend to be somewhat dry and impersonal, focusing on things like contraception options, and at best, some lesson plans in spotting the red flags for abuse when dating.
While these things are very important, the fact of the matter is that it leaves out so much of what young people need to know about dating, particularly when it comes to gender. Instead, we send them out into the world to fumble around, screwing up their relationships and making a bunch of unnecessary mistakes. Sometimes adults even teach kids really bad lessons, telling them things that simply aren’t true and setting them up to fail.
With that in mind, here’s a list of some lessons that would ideally be part of actual comprehensive sex education, in and out of the classroom.
1) Men and women are not opposites. Sitcoms, romantic comedies, pop music, and the dating advice industry all have a strong tendency to send the message that men and women are complete opposites and that one sex cannot really understand the other. This is, bluntly put, a lie. While men and women are socialized differently and are under different social pressures, the variation between any two individuals is going to be greater than between the two sexes.
If you’re straight and believe your only option is to date someone who is your “opposite” and bound, by gender, to have nothing in common with you, what are the odds you’re going to find someone who actually makes you happy? Probably pretty low, as you spend all your time dating people who aren’t a good fit but blaming their gender and not their actual personality for the problem.
Instead, we should be telling kids they need to hold out for a partner they have stuff in common with: common interests, a shared sense of humor, similar life goals. Obviously, you don’t want to find a duplicate of yourself, as that would be boring, but someone who has overlapping sensibilities is bound to make you happier than someone you consider your opposite.
2) Breaking up doesn’t make you a failure. This should need no explanation. Most of us know people who persisted in a bad relationship for months or even years because they falsely believed terminating the relationship meant it was a failure. Waves of newly minted college freshmen are going to go through struggle, cheating and heartbroken because they try and fail to hold together a long-distance relationship with their high school sweetheart, mostly out of the fear that breaking up makes them a failure.
We should teach kids that some relationships just run their course, and just because they come to an end doesn’t mean they are failures.
3) There is nothing cute or funny about pestering uninterested people for dates or attention. There is not a woman alive who has not had to endure being hit on by a man who won’t take a hint. She smiles politely, refuses to engage, actively looks for exits and yet he stands there, droning on and on, fully aware that she wants to be left alone though she knows she can’t say so directly without looking like a bitch. Women who try to date online often find that men send shockingly blunt sexual requests without even bothering with the preliminary of introducing themselves first.
Where do guys get the idea that this behavior is cool, or even marginally acceptable? Sadly, they are applauded for this kind of harassment starting at a young age. Everyone acts like it’s cute to congratulate the teenage hothead who asks Kate Upton or Miss America to the prom without bothering to have a conversation first. Romantic comedies frequently portray it as charming when men persistently chase after women who’ve rejected them. Is it any wonder so many young men grow up to think it’s OK to be unduly aggressive with women?
Let’s try another a tactic instead. Let’s teach boys that not only is it uncool to pester, harass and guilt-trip women into giving them attention, but let’s teach them that they’ll find more success with women if they cultivate charm and learn how to flirt instead. Sites like Paging Doctor Nerdlove are a good place to get information teaching boys that the art of flirting will get them a lot further than pestering or harassing ever will.
4) Sex should be fun. A lot of adults think it’s self-evident that sex is about having fun, so we tend to forget to emphasize pleasure when teaching kids about dating and sexuality. This is a serious problem, especially for girls, who often find themselves unable to speak up during sexual encounters about what makes them feel good or worrying, as some teachers have found, that there’s something wrong with them if they actually like sex. It’s hard to tell kids to avoid sex that makes them feel bad or uncomfortable unless we’re also telling kids that sex is supposed to feel good and empowering.
Boys, too, are often encouraged to think of sex in terms of “scoring” or proving their manhood, which can often lead to feeling bad about themselves or pressuring girls to have sex before they’re ready. By emphasizing that sex is about pleasure—not about proving your manhood or proving your love or placating or manipulating someone—we might help prevent a lot of dysfunctional behavior.
5) There’s no rush to settle down. There’s been an increasing amount of pressure, particularly on young women, to believe that they need to lock down a husband in their early 20s or they will end up alone with nothing but cats for company. Telling young women they’ll be dried-up, unloved hags if they don’t marry by 25 is such a popular message that even someone who can barely string a coherent sentence together can get a book deal touting this claim. (See: Susan Patton.) The audience for most of the scare stories about “hookup culture” and hand-wringing about the marriage prospects of young women is predominantly older, more conservative folks, but some of these fears are bound to trickle down to young women, causing them unnecessary fear and clinginess.
Part of the dating and sex education curriculum, then, should be a unit on why delaying marriage and childbirth not only won’t leave you lonely, but is correlated with better marriages and fewer divorces. We should tell young women that, if they want long and happy marriages, the best thing to do is play the field and have fun while they’re young and not worry about trying to lock some guy down. Marriage and babies tend to come in due time for people who want them, and rushing just means raising your chances of divorcing later in life.
Kids want so much more from sex education than demonstrations of condom use and reminders to play safe. If you have any doubt about that, visit a website like Scarleteen to see the breadth and depth of the questions kids bring to adults about dating and relationships, especially when they believe those adults take their concerns seriously. We all had to learn this stuff the hard way, but we can make it easier for the next generation.
Amanda Marcotte co-writes the blog Pandagon. She is the author of “It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.”