By Annyston Pennington
One of the first times I saw a real-life, bona fide, unasked-for penis was on a slideshow in middle school for a sex education unit organized by Worth the Wait, an abstinence-only sex ed. program. The penis was, frankly, underwhelming.
I had since third grade been subject to Worth the Wait videos and slideshows foretelling the imminent arrival of my “womanhood,” and by that point in my life, the disembodied close up of some dude’s genitalia was disappointing.
By the way middle school boys talked about their junk and the way movies glorified sex, I guess I assumed that one contributing organ to that endeavor would be a little more…magical? Not to be graphic or anything, but the penis shown was just kind of limp and pink and weird, especially to a middle school girl.
In the course of the slideshow, the sex ed. instructor went into info-graphic detail about the mysterious machinations of the penis. We learned about erections, orgasms, semen, sperm, and the ultimate objective: conception. Followed by a cross-section illustration of female sex organs, we were informed that sex was eerily similar to those spatial reasoning toys for toddlers where you’d insert the round peg into the circular hole.
In the following years, we students were exposed to close ups of various sexually transmitted infections and a pregnant woman preaching the end-all importance of the sexual experience. Boys had the benefit of ejaculation to promote their pleasure, procreation central to all discussion. Meanwhile, women’s bodies were reduced to confusingly labeled diagrams and vague explanations of processes beyond menstruation,. Female pleasure was skipped over entirely. Instead, we vagina-havers were described as little more than incubators for the potential hell-spawn of a child conceived out of wedlock. As the program name suggested, abstinence was the best option, the God-approved option, the only option.
The importance of chastity dictated by Worth the Wait was challenged daily by overheard conversation in the school halls about who had lost their mythic V-Cards, challenged by media portrayals of condemned teenage moms and boys sexually reborn as men, and by the real experiences of my own young, unmarried parents. My hometown claimed one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the state, and yet these people had the nerve to tell me that buying in to their propaganda would protect me from babies and, consequently, Hell.
I smelled bullshit early on.
However, I was not about to cut and run with my tail between my legs, fearful of my own body and its possibilities. When the public school sex education system failed me, I turned to alternative sources: friends, literature, and (cue trumpets) The Internet.
The singular beauty of middle school was the opportunity to befriend older students and thus glean knowledge from them about everything from the difficulty of 8th grade social studies with Mr. Sherrer to proper make-out technique.
Older female friends were a goldmine of information, and like an acne-riddled sponge I absorbed the fine details of heterosexual interaction. I adopted an anatomically accurate vocabulary useful for both discussion and profanity. However, the female body was still relatively taboo and blush inducing.
During those educational years, I learned that masturbation was not for boys only, of the existence of the clitoris and the controversy of the “g-spot,” and that blowjobs required less blowing than (but just as much work as) the name implied. My friends and I huddled over neon-pink issues of Cosmo at the local Hastings, giggling and gasping at the contortionist’s Kama Sutra. At slumber parties we played “Never Have I Ever,” discovering the extremities of what we could have been doing. Our sexual exploration was based mostly upon the silliness of it all. We never ventured beyond the safety of our girl’s only group and the realm of speculation. It was fun, embarrassing, and harmless.
However innocent this form of sex education might have been, it left much to be desired in the practical department. We had come to understand the meaning of the terms scribbled in Sharpie on bathroom stall doors, but our knowledge did not take into account the less glamorous details of sexuality let alone variety. Beyond the heteronormativity fed to us by both the public education system and pop culture/media, there was in fact an entire world of alternative sex education outlets encompassing varying races, sexual orientations, the gender spectrum…you name it! We just had to take the first wary step to pull up Google.
Now, I say “wary” because who in their right mind is going to Google search anything to do with sex for educational purposes. No kid wants to stumble upon an X-rated website on their parent’s computer only to be grounded and acquire nothing but a computer virus. Mainstream pornography is its own can of problematic worms, but fortunately it is not the only option available on the Internet, and certainly not the best option for a teen trying to navigate the ins and outs—snicker—of sex.
While often more explorative than explanatory, such creative outlets as fan fiction and web comics still provided insight into the rainbow of sexual experiences and interests of real people. These artistic formats—circulated through such social media platforms as LiveJournal, Tumblr, and other more specific forums—were a means of self-expression for their creators, a place where they could include minorities that were often fetishized, disrespected, or excluded altogether in mainstream sex entertainment and education. These artists and writers were often minorities themselves: women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+.
As a teen, having access to sex education that was both enjoyable and diverse was revolutionary considering the pedantic, conservative dribble fed to me in school. These stories and comics also looked at sex not just as a biological function that subjected men and women (in a strict binary sense) to harmful gender roles but as a part of life that one could live with or without, that one could enjoy no matter their gender or orientation. Sex was neither taboo nor sacred but just…sex.
And with that normalizing of the subject often came the addition of other important factors to sexuality: human relationships. While these stories may involve explicit scenes, more often than not they also contained interactions outside the bedroom, people sharing in emotional development and making healthy connections. Suddenly, sex was also not a thing that happened in the void of late night programming or between faceless mannequins on a Health class slide show but in the context of every day human interaction.
Creative outlets such as comics and creative writing provided the emotional facet missing from prior sex ed., but I’ve come to find other Internet resources that not only give personality to the subject but also provide valuable information on relationships, sex, and safety.
One such resource is the web comic Oh Joy, Sex Toy , a quirky but illuminating comic written and drawn by Erica Moen, along with her husband and other guest artists. Presenting such subjects as reviews of vibrators and the pros and cons of IUDs in the comic format—with plenty of puns and the color pink—takes the pressure off these topics, making it a fun way to learn about aspects of sex that we are conditioned to cringe away from. Moen and her contributors also make a point to portray all types of people in each comic from transgendered men and women to amputees to POC lesbians and everyone in between. It’s a marvelous example of representation and how naturally it can—and should—be incorporated into sex education.
Other sources that have been brought to my attention are Sexplanations and the videos of Laci Green. Both YouTube series present sexual subjects in a similarly entertaining way as Oh Joy, Sex Toy, but with a real person conversing with you, the viewer. Had I sat through five minutes of Laci Green preaching about the absurdity of “popping your cherry” when I was in sixth grade than through the half hour of Texas State Legislature ordained nonsense I did endure, I would have felt much more confident in my body.
As Erica Moen, Laci Green, Sexplanations, and others prove through their debunking of common sexual misconceptions, a lot of what we as kids are taught is based off of religion rather than science and is presented so as to incite fear rather than to enlighten. With the advent of the Internet and Google, recent generations are afforded a chance that many of us were not in regards to researching and understanding sex in a healthy, positive way.
Currently, the public sex education curriculum is a cluster-cuss of propaganda and vague malarkey, but that’s sort of beside the point. By making open conversation and online alternatives more socially acceptable, younger generations could grow up not only understanding sex on a comprehensive level but understand their own complex emotions and urges as well. Just as those older girls in middle school took me under wing at the beginning of my sexual exploration, I hope to share the love and knowledge that I’ve gathered over the years with kids like me, helping them get truly sex educated.
1| Illustrations provided by artist Veronica Garcia