This post is part of a collaboration among some very talented bloggers to write about issues that affect women. We've all chosen different topics that are close to our respective hearts, ranging from rape, sexual behavior, and abortion, to child birth, gender roles, and weight (to name a few). I also collaborated with three very talented bloggers for a Women's Writes post for In It to Gym It, an awesome, lively blog about getting in shape and staying healthy. Do yourself a favor and check out some of the great posts/blogs I've linked to!
My first "real job" (i.e. not working for my parents) was as a Health Educator at Choices Teen Clinic, a reproductive health clinic for teens. This was--and I still consider it as such today--the most awesome job ever. The clinic was designed to test a health care model of teens counseling teens about sex and reproduction, versus the effectiveness of adults doing the very same job. We operated much like Planned Parenthood, offering low-cost to no-cost care for teens aged twelve to nineteen. (Before you start chasing me with fiery torches, you should be aware that California state law allows consent for reproductive care as of the age of twelve. This wasn't some subversive, secret-code-word-required operation. Got a problem with the law? Write your California congressmen.)
Like most medical jobs, I was first introduced to this facility as a patient. (Yes, I started young, and while I don't necessarily recommend it, it did lead me to the clinic. Thus, it was totally worth it.) Had I not had access to such a place, I could very well be mother to a thirteen year old nightmare. (The eff?!) And that just wouldn't be good for anyone. But I was a pretty typical Choices patient: young, scared, utterly retarded when it came to understanding my body, and totally ignorant about sex. Sadly, you don't have to know much about either of those things to actually do the deed.
One of the most surprising (and sad) aspects of being a Health Educator at this clinic was realizing how many people (myself included prior to the months of intense training) don't have a bloody clue (no pun intended) how their bodies function. After the initial battery of questions (chief complaints, date of last period, number of pregnancies, medication allergies, etc.), I found myself consistently reaching for the plastic female reproductive system models littering the offices and starting from scratch. (It's pretty amazing how many learning opportunities arise after simply inquiring as to the number of pregnancies one has had. Apparently, this too is too complicated a question for some.) This was even more common in the education sessions in which both parties were present. Dudes just stared in wonder as I explained that the vagina and uterus (i.e. "the baby place") were two completely different sections.
I could go on for days sharing the many awkward, depressing, embarrassing, and sometimes humorous situations I encountered over my years at this gig, but the point I am trying to make is that there is no rule book for sex. There is no test that one must pass before he or she can start getting busy. (Sometimes, I wish there were.) And because of this, there are many adults out there who remain as clueless and out of touch with their own bodies (not to mention those of the opposite sex) as there are teens who are fumbling their way through the whole thing.
Much of this has to do with the lack of accurate, honest sexual education available to teens and young adults. As you may have correctly ascertained, I am a huge advocate for Sex Ed. But sexual education is about so much more than birth control options and keeping kids from passing STIs around like pirated music. It's about teaching girls/women and boys/men about their own bodies, and helping people to understand that in order to take ownership of their sexual selves, they must first understand what that means in a very basic sense, and also acknowledge the many repercussions of one's actions within this arena. There are few things more complicated than sex, and yet we shy away from delving into it and/or the many important topics associated with it (consent, safety, relationships, etc.)
Especially for young girls, it is unfair to expect rational, responsible decisions and reactions when it comes to sex when we keep the pertinent information from her. And I am not trying to make the argument that she's going to have sex whether you like it or not, so give her a fistful of condoms (per se), but how can we expect her to take a stand on behalf of her body and her sexuality (whether that includes sexual activity or not) if we haven't given her all the facts? We expect young women to understand the concept of consent when it comes to sex and dating, but ask them to blindly accept a very conservative body of information currently available when it comes to forming the basis of this decision? We use euphemisms when talking to teens about their bodies, and then wonder why they don't take sexual intercourse seriously.
I honestly believe that some adults are just as clueless about sex as most teens, especially when it comes to taking ownership of one's sexual identity. How can you be a confident, passionate women if you have no idea what your own body looks like? If you feel embarrassed during sex because you wouldn't even begin to know how to communicate with your partner about your likes/dislikes in the bedroom? If you shut down and just wait for it to all be over the second a guy heads south of your clavicle because, quite simply, you haven't held out for a partner who could convince you that sex can be anything more than this?
I think it all starts with us treating sexual health as a valued, important aspect of one's medical history, not simply an awkward conversation that we try to avoid and lie through. And just as you hear old men and women rambling on about their heart murmurs and aching joints, so too should we "young 'ens" be talking openly about birth control, STIs, pregnancy, and sexual behavior. In public, loudly over coffee? Maybe not. Tho, to be fair, I don't even like hearing about the "innocuous" health issues (or any personal crap, really) of strangers in public. But find a doctor you trust, friends to whom you can confide, and establish a network of people with whom you can be open and honest when it comes to discussing your sex life. You might be surprised to find how many people share your viewpoint and reinforce your healthy, well-informed perspective (...or otherwise.)