Fear-based Sex Education & Sexual Anxiety by Betty Butch

When Sex Education Sucks

I probably don’t need to tell you how bad sex education is in most parts of America, but in case you need the 411: it’s bad! “There is no required standard for sex ed in this country,” Jon Oliver pointed out in a 2015 episode of Last Week Tonight. “In fact, only 22 states mandate that kids receive it, and only 13 require the information presented be medically accurate.” 

With no standards in place, misinformation runs rampant – and so does shaming. Despite mountains of evidence disputing its effectiveness (and many studies pointing out its outright harmfulness), many schools peddle abstinence only “education” that seeks to scare and shame students out of having sex. Common tactics include exaggerating sex-related health risks, downplaying the effectiveness of contraceptives and safer sex barriers, and stigmatizing premarital sex, STI’s, and non-cisheterosexual sex acts. 

“‘Choosing The Best,’ a curriculum commonly used in Georgia, teaches that people who have sex before marriage – 95 percent of U.S. adults – are not “pure.” Some activities suggest that sex before marriage renders people tainted, worthless, and unwanted,” writes Maureen Downey for AJC. “One former student discussed a lesson comparing virginity to a flower in which students were told ‘no one wants a flower who has no petals.’ She told The Atlanta Journal Constitution, ‘…I cannot express the amount of damage this did to me…’” 

Considering that 46% of high school students have had sex, “don’t have sex” is not only an unhelpful way to frame sex ed, it’s framing that actively denies the very present needs of students who want to and will have sex regardless of their educators’ agendas. Abstaining from sex until certain emotional or religious criteria are met is a completely valid choice; but it’s not the only valid choice, and it’s not the choice that at least 46% of students make. It also ignores that students who choose not to have sex may make different choices as adults, and without any education, they’ll be ill-equipped to make informed decisions that prioritize risk-awareness, consent, and pleasure. 

But even in places where sex education is sex education, falsehoods and personal bias abound. In an As/Is video on bad sex education experiences, a contributor explained that their teacher discouraged anal sex because “there’s a good chance that the barrier that holds your poop in would be broken” and thus cause a lifetime of incontinence. Though this is wildly untrue, because it was said by an authority figure in an educational context, the As/Is contributor believed this damaging misinformation for years.

“While evidence-based, comprehensive curricula offer more practical information about sex and contraception, they too can contain messages of shame about pregnancy and STDs,” notes Monica Faulkner for The Conversation. Despite how common both pregnancy and STI’s are, they’re often presented as the life-destroying potential consequences of sex, which massively oversimplifies these experiences and turns real people into abstract teaching cudgels. 

“According to the American Sexual Health Association, or ASHA, ‘one in two sexually active persons will contract an STD/STI by age 25’ and ‘more than half of all people will have an STD/STI at some point in their lifetime’,” Ericka Shin points out for The Daily Californian. “Despite the prevalence of STIs, people don’t know much about them. This lack of understanding reinforces the misconceptions surrounding them.” 

And sex education that only mentions pregnancy and STI’s as “consequences” – and not experiences students are statistically likely have – is often the starting point of a lifetime of negative perceptions and assumptions. Worse, most sex ed doesn’t cover the full range of tools available for decreasing risks (PrEP/PEP, dental dams, LARCs, receptive/internal condoms, to name just a few), healing or managing their STI’s, or coping with or terminating an unplanned pregnancy.

This is to say nothing of the damaging impact of sex education that does not include (or actively derides) same gender attraction and sex acts, gender identity, and sex involving multiple partners. Non-inclusive sex education further alienates and stigmatizes students whose experiences fall outside of cisheteronormative perceptions of sex, and often fails to give them safer sex information that’s relevant to their needs. 

The result of widespread fear-based sex education is an entire population of sexually active people who are largely ignorant and ashamed of sex – particularly expressions of sex that normalizes being risk-aware and prioritizes pleasure. America is overwhelmingly sex negative.

The Impact of Sexual Anxiety

The ways that shame and fear around sex can impact us are as varied as we are. It can warp the way we value ourselves, our pleasure, our partners, and our peers. It can make us afraid of being too much or too little. It can haunt our sexual decisions for our entire lives – and it’s something we have to go out of our way to unlearn. 

For just a few examples of how anxiety around sex can manifest, consider if you struggle with any of the following:

Murkiness around consent. When we lack the language and cultural comfort to discuss sex, it’s even harder to discuss consent. What are we consenting to? “Many of us have lived our sexual lives understanding consent to be what we would permit our partner to do, not what we actively wanted to do,” Katy Preen points out, “…How do you begin [negotiating sex] when you feel your desires are inherently shameful?”

Not prioritizing pleasure. When you know very little about – or actively feel shame or fear around – sex, exploring what’s pleasurable is an intimidating endeavor. People with vagina’s orgasms are so often framed as complicated/elusive (an inaccurate exaggeration), and people with penises’s capacity for pleasure is narrowed down to penis stimulation.  

Sexual mishaps. “I think it was in Utah or Arizona where I learned about a couple that experienced really painful intercourse for a year before realizing that the anus is not the vagina,” Dr Lindsey Doe of Sexplanations recalls. When you’re too embarrassed about sex to discuss or research your experiences, how will you know when things are awry?  

Forgoing contraceptives and/or safer sex barriers (without consenting to the risks), not disclosing STI status, and not getting tested and/or seeking treatment for STI management. “When sex education only teaches fear and consequences, young people are more likely to either engage in reckless behavior out of ignorance or ignore their sexual health out of embarrassment,” writes Whitney Gray for NWHM

Self-loathing or disgust. The Vulva Gallery – art by Hilde Atlanta that celebrates the visual diversity of vulvas – includes dozens of posts from people who weren’t taught about vulvas in sex ed. Because they never learned that their bodies were normal, many posters mention how difficult it’s been to undo years of shame and self-hatred over their proportions. 

Vaginismus (and other sexual dysfunctions.) My vaginismus is caused by sexual assault trauma, but I know several people who also suffer from it due to anxiety about sex in general. The root cause? Terrifying, shame-based sex education that exaggerated risks and insisted sex would be a painful, unfulfilling experience. 

Performance anxiety. “Abstinence-only education tends to create a stigma and shame around sex that can continue into adolescence and adulthood. Sex education that focuses only on pregnancy ignores the importance of sexual stimulation and pleasure [...] can leave people looking to porn for their sex education… [which] can increase myths of sexual performance and increase anxiety,” certified sex therapist Michael J. Salas tells Healthline.

Tackling Fear and Shame Around Sex 

“Shame is a weapon against us,” writes Whitney Gray for NWHM. “How can we protect our sexual and reproductive health if we can’t talk about sex, or even our bodies’ basic physiological functions, which we must be aware of to discern whether we’re healthy or not?” Gray goes on to wonder about the use of sex ed if it “failed to teach all forms of sexual activity, how to protect ourselves, about consent and respect, how our sex organs function, and what’s normal.” And they’re right: sex education that doesn’t cover these important aspects of sex is essentially useless. 

But sex ed doesn’t have end after high school. It can begin now. Here are a handful of places you can get started:

But you have to do more than learn about sex and pleasure to tackle sexual anxiety and fear: you have to unlearn the stigma. “Moving away from shame and towards sex-positivity means, first and foremost, that I must affirm myself as a sexual being. I have to stop pretending sex isn’t a part of my life. I have to let go of thoughts and beliefs that prevent me from taking control over what happens to my body,” Jamila Reddy writes for The Body Is Not An Apology. Talking about internalized shame, a YourTango contributor reasoned, “Most of the time, these messages aren’t our own beliefs but something we’ve inherited from an outside source” such as sex education steeped in scaremongering or misinformation. “With this perspective, you can choose to shed the shame messages and become more authentic.”

“It’s hard to discover and ask for what really turns us on,” Emma McGowan points out. “And that leads to a less fulfilling sex life for everyone involved. If you commit to making conscious decisions about your sex life—about the sexual acts you’re doing and why you’re doing them—then you’re owning your sex life in a major way. And if you own your choices, why would you ever feel ashamed of them?”

Shedding the fear and shame we have around sex is no easy task. I write about sex and review sex toys for a living and I still find myself having sex negative thoughts that I know started with my religious upbringing and awful sex education. But I do my best to tackle these self-shaming thoughts as they come, support better sex ed for upcoming generations to ensure they won’t struggle the same way, and seek to share my joy for sex with others – whether that’s through helping them pick out their first sex toy, encouraging them with pieces like this one, or just being myself and hoping the world picks up on what’s got me loving my body and everything it can do. Sex and pleasure can be whatever we want them to be.

How will you tackle your shame?




Betty Butch is a queer, sex-positive blogger who reviews pleasure products and writes about identity and kink at bettybutch.com. You can find her on Twitter via @betty_butch.


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