The sex talk I got was “AIDS will kill you and herpes is forever.”
This abrupt statement was delivered by my uncomfortable father while we were driving home from Bed, Bath & Beyond after purchasing dorm regulation twin extra-long sheets for my freshman year of college. I could sense his relief that he had said something. That I wasn’t being shipped off to college without some kind of guidance.
My high school curriculum was no better. My sex-ed class was lumped in with driver’s ed. It was taught by a male gym teacher who you just know practiced saying the word “intercourse” with a straight face into his bathroom mirror.
They made us carry around a flour sack for a week as if it were a baby. You failed if you were caught shoving your beloved sack into your locker.
The main takeaway from health class always seemed to be that it was a girl’s responsibility to keep her legs closed. We were taught about birth control but there was never was there a condom demonstration. I did end up with pages and pages of notes on birth control pills, patches and shots.
When it came to looking elsewhere for information, resources were scant. The Internet wasn’t yet what it’s become. Within entertainment and pop culture, the topic of sex was positioned as something teens weren’t ready for yet. If they did have sex, it inevitably led to some kind of pregnancy scare or life-threatening illness. (Thanks a lot “Beverly Hills 90210.”)
But I looked for information. I wanted it. And my female friends and I discussed and shared. I didn’t know any guys who genuinely felt they needed to know anything beyond not to keep condoms in their wallet or glove compartment.
It would be 2008 before we’d have “The Secret Life of The American Teenager” with a far more empathetic view of a teen who chooses to keep her unplanned baby at the age of 15.
Later, we’d have “Girls,” “Catastrophe” and “Broad City” with HPV as a plot point. In 2015 activist Ella Dawson would pen an astoundingly forthright and unapologetic essay about her herpes diagnosis for Women’s Health. Ali Wong, Amy Schumer, “Girlboss” and “The Mindy Project” have incorporated jokes about HPV that removed some of the stigma.
Efforts in pop culture to talk open about issues around sex are mainly coming from women, however. So unless we’re all living on Themyscira without my knowledge, we’re forgetting about the role of 50 percent of the population.
It could be why when I once I asked a man I was dating once what he knew about HPV, and he said, “all I know is that guys can’t get it.” That shows a major failure on the part of how we present information about sex in any format.
When the HPV vaccination was first released, it was marketed to girls and women, not boys, even though the most effective results come when it’s administered to both.
The stigma associated with an STI or a teenage pregnancy still primarily falls on women as a consequence of what the morality police have designated as a poor choice, even though it takes two people to engage in that kind of sexual activity.
Studies on the impact of comprehensive sex education show lower rates of STIs and far fewer unplanned pregnancies and abortions than an abstinence-only curriculum. Rather than provide accurate information that can assist teens in making informed decisions for themselves, the emphasis in too many schools is on fear and shame tactics that primarily target young girls.
If the entertainment and media industry has found a way to start shedding its mocking attitude and normalize these real issues, why does our education system continue to reinforce harmful narratives and negative stereotypes?