Sex Ed 101: What You Didn’t Learn
College sex educators have found that many students have basic questions about sexuality that should have been answered in sex ed courses in middle school or high school. Here are the most common misconceptions that college students have about sex, and the ways that educators attempt to remedy them.
Dr. Paul Joannides is a walking-talking sex-advice column, minus the diva plus ten years of graduate school. Traveling from college-to-college across the United States, Joannides lectures students on the female orgasm, pornography, contraception and other sex-related topics. His book, “The Guide to Getting It On,” may make parents uncomfortable—what with the Grecian god cartoons with swollen, foot-long penises—but Joannides aims to change unhealthy, common misconceptions that college students have about sex through the frank discussion of topics that most kids weren’t taught in middle school or high school.
“Being in a room with 300 or 400 students,” Joannides explains, “I’ll ask, ‘how many of your parents, when you were little or growing up, told you what a clitoris was?’” The response to this question is usually, very few. Parents who do not want to talk to their kids about nitty-gritty sex issues normally rely on education in schools to teach their children about sex.” But sex education leaves out a lot: basic questions about sex that these kids then carry with them to college.
The average age that teens start having sex is 17, according to various sexual health sources; senior year of high school or freshman year of college for most kids.. On his college tours, Joannides sometimes meets with groups of female students to discuss sex issues directly related to women. “What has stunned me is how basic their questions are,” Joannides says. “A lot of them ask about birth control.” Although most college women have heard of the various types of contraception, Joannides has found that they still have many questions regarding usage and side effects.
According to the most recent study by the Guttmacher Institute for sexual health, most teens (ages 15 to 19) have received some sort of sex education, however, one-third of these teens have not received any formal instruction about contraception. In fact, 46 percent of teen males and 33 percent of teen females did not receive any instruction on birth control before they first had sex.
Sarah, a 20-year old New York University student, says she still has questions about birth control, even though she has been sexually active and taking the pill for almost two years. “I went to a gynecologist when I decided to start taking the pill,” Sarah says. “I just wish I grew up knowing more about it and being comfortable with it, instead of freaking out any time something unexpected happens with my period, and then calling my doctor.”
College sex educators like Joannides suggest that much of the added confusion surrounding birth control could be a result of false or deceiving information on the Internet. However, a new sex education campaign was begun last month that innovatively aims to use the Internet as a tool to teach sexually active women about contraception.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a grassroots movement that provides sex education information to universities and other organizations, has launched an initiative, called Bedsider, specifically designed to create a network for women ages 18 to 29, who have questions about birth control.
Bedsider is a three-year multimedia public-service campaign, with an interactive website, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed and fun, quirky commercials, created by the Ad Council. “Bedsider’s a great alternative if Sex Ed 101 isn’t in your course catalog and a great supplement even if it is,” says Howard University student Khalea Underwood, who interns at the National Campaign.
In a blog post for College Candy, Underwood describes the limitations of college sex education: the very occasional sex awareness programs, the unread pamphlets doctors’ offices and the oh-so-cliché condom bowls at the front desk of college dorms. “Bedsider features real stories from people our age who tell us about their contraceptive preferences,” says Underwood. “I love Bedsider because of its honesty.”
The National Campaign’s use of the Internet as a learning tool comes as a welcome change for many sex educators who have seen the Internet as a hub of information that can be easily misinterpreted. Dr. Kathryn Stamoulis, educational psychologist and writer for Psychology Today’s “New Teen Age” blog, describes the dangers of online media on teens’ perceptions of sexuality. Stamoulis suggests that if kids do not get answers to their sex questions from their schoolteachers or parents, they’ll turn to the Internet, and sometimes they’ll turn to pornography. “Even if students are lucky enough to get sex education in the classroom, it’s just not enough,” Stamoulis says. “A lot of teenagers are learning what sex is through porn, which is acting. It’s not real.”
According to Family Safe Media, the average age of a child’s first exposure to pornography online is 11 years old. Porn watching has created misconceptions in the minds of women about the way they are supposed to act during sex. “These women in porn are contorting into positions that may not be pleasurable for the female body,” says Stamoulis. “Women watching porn in turn try to perform sex, instead of experience it.”
Similarly, Joannides is concerned with how pornography shapes male conceptions about sex. “Where is anyone going to turn in the absence of credible information?” he asks. “Males at least are going to turn to porn because that’s what’s out there.” This is worrisome because, Joannides explains, in porn there are no honest conversations between couples about what the two individuals want. Instead there is a very generic depiction of what turns women on. “Men just assume that all you do is whip out this enormous dick and she’s going to be in seventh heaven.”
In addition, Joannides believes that pornography reinforces the idea that men are dominant and sex experts. In his experience with college males, he’s found that most guys are insecure about asking questions relating to sex because masculinity is seen as mastery. “If they ask a bunch of questions about sex it might give others a clue that they don’t know everything,” Joannides explains. “And maybe they’re a bit of a weenie.” However, the most common questions that guys ask Joannides have to do with female sexuality: how do female orgasms work, what is a clitoris, and why do some women respond one way to sex while others respond in other ways?
For Joannides, an important lesson that he teaches to college-aged males is, “Hey you actually talk to women about sex!” This assumption that males are dominant in the bedroom usually leads to sexual discrimination and a lack of communication in real relationships, which is harmful to both parties.
In terms of asking questions, many universities have health services with comprehensive sex education councilors that are willing to answer the dirtiest of sex-related questions. Columbia University’s “Go Ask Alice!” service was rated this year’s best college sex education service in the country by The Daily Beast. It is a web-based Q&A resource for students that answer a wide range of questions, from sex advice to questions about STDs.
Reina, a 21 year-old Columbia University student, describes “Go Ask Alice!” “When I started having sex, I had no idea what I was doing,” Reina says. “I went to ‘Go Ask Alice!’ typed in my questions and realized that I wasn’t the only one freaking out! It was such a relief.”
Joannides and Stamoulis agree that having conversations about sex—with partners, friends, or on online forums—is extremely important. It may be a long time until educators find the best way to teach kids about sex, but in the meantime, honest answers to sex-related questions are becoming more and more available to those who ask.
The students interviewed for this piece asked to have their real names withheld.