Skip to main content

Why Isn't Sex Education a Part of Common Core?

Maybe it's not politically feasible, but most kids will need sexual knowledge more than Shakespearean verse to be functioning adults. Here's a sample curriculum.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
banana condom

How many times do we have to teach kids to put condoms on bananas before we get to the important stuff? (Photo: Tomnamon/Shutterstock)

According to a recent PublicMind poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University, 44 percent of Americans believe that sex education is part of the Common Core curriculum. It’s not. The Common Core—national standards aimed at creating better-educated high school graduates—actually covers only mathematics and “language arts,” or what we used to call English.

But why doesn’t the Common Core have a sex ed component? After graduation, more of us are likely to go on to have sex than to engage in algebraic equations or close readings of poetry.

Yeah, I know: Many parents don’t like the idea of other people deciding what their kids will know about sex. Many don’t even like the idea of other people deciding what their kids will know about subtraction.

Still, given that, on average, sex will matter to one’s life about as much as how one uses grammar, one would think we’d have some nationally organized approach to ensure that the basics of sex are covered in public schools.

My son is now a freshman in a progressive public high school, and even there what I’d like to see covered isn’t. Most of his public school sex ed seems to consist of warnings about pregnancy and disease, combined with endless lessons about how to put on a condom.

Look, I think it’s fine to teach a kid how to put on a condom correctly. But it is not something you have to teach every year, is it? These are kids who have been successfully putting on their socks for over a decade. Condoms aren’t that different. Granted, a hole in your sock isn’t as risky as a hole in a condom—even this winter, even in Boston—but the time spent on condom usage demonstrations might instead be spent on broader sex ed.

Like what?

Well, I’d start with a really thorough education about parts. I would like to see kids presented with plastic models of roughly average male and female genitalia, complete with plastic pubic hair, so they could see in 3-D what “real” genitals sometimes look like.

This seems especially important where female sex anatomy is concerned. This business of only ever presenting the female sex anatomy as a cut-away side view does not actually tell kids what they will see if they find themselves facing a pudendum. I think it is objectively true that the world would be better off if everybody knew where the clitoris is, and that it isn’t inside the vagina.

Then I would like to see kids taught about genital variation—about how phallic size varies considerably in males and females, as does scrotal size, labial size, genital skin color, shape of organs, etc. Same with breast development, Adam’s apples, facial and body hair, etc.

From there I would move on to what the bit of data we have tells us: Genital size may matter to your career if you are a porn star or if you’re expected to work naked in a job involving pinch-hazard machinery, but it won’t matter that much to your ability to have pleasure from your parts. Most people’s natural parts feel good to them.

Pleasure! Right, let’s talk about that. Could we please frankly explain to children why it is that more of us will be into sex than iambic pentameter verse? Could we unpack why the use of iambic pentameter—like so many other pastimes in life—is actually about getting laid? Face it: It’s not because we want to make babies, but because our evolution has left us programmed to enjoy what might lead to babies (if it weren’t for socks). We are made to want pleasure because the species survives through the pleasure urge.

If I’ve seen anything result from my son’s sex education, it’s a growing and reasonable opinion on his part that most adults don’t tell the real truth about sex, so there’s no point in asking them.

But wait, not everybody feels the urge to cross-sex couple? Great—let’s also talk about that! Why do some people feel the urge to have sex with people with similar parts? Here we could explore some of the possible reasons. But ultimately I think this would be a great entry into a discussion of who cares who you want to have sex with? It’s about consent, stupid.

Consent. I can’t believe that after all of the “rape culture” conversations going on, my son’s formal sex ed still seems to have no discussion about consent: What does it look like, how do you know you have it from your potential lover, who is not capable of consent, how do you clearly signal that you are not giving it or you are withdrawing it? Personally, I’d love it if children explicitly were taught “no” as their first safe word. (They can move on to “cacao” when they are grown-ups.)

What else? OK, I realize that I’m risking my chance of ever becoming surgeon general in saying this, but it sure seems like kids should be taught that masturbation is common, normal, and, if you are not too extreme with your methods, harmless. I’m not suggesting we provide instruction in methodology, but we could go a long way with a little bit of honesty about how many of us twiddle ourselves, and how it doesn’t make us go blind or unable to do division.

And then, of course, we should cover disease and pregnancy prevention—but maybe after the rest of this, after kids feel like we’re being up front with them about the important basics. That way they trust us. If I’ve seen anything result from my son’s sex education, it’s a growing and reasonable opinion on his part that most adults don’t tell the real truth about sex, so there’s no point in asking them. (He could ask his mother, but he knows that then she won’t shut up.)

I’m sure there are some people who will flip out at this proposal. (Paging Rush Limbaugh.) They will say that talking to kids about sex like this will be like engaging them in sex. I actually think there is something to that—that thinking and talking about sex awakens the part of our brain that is sexual. But we have good reason to believe teenagers will think about sex, and (gasp!) engage in sex, whether or not we adults can bring ourselves to talk about it.

Sex is, after all, the ultimate common core of humanity. So maybe it’s time to recognize it in the Common Core.