High school kids are being taught about the birds and the bees with the same fear-mongering tactics many of us remember. But some health educators today are offering teens a more grown-up lesson: Sex isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
… Halfway through one of Megara Bell’s classes, a ponytailed girl in a bright-green shirt asks the most basic of questions.
“Wait,” she calls out. “What is sex?”
Bell is a Newton mother of three with short, spiky brown hair and a wry smile that suggests she would be hard to rattle. As director of the nonprofit Partners in Sex Education, she teaches about human sexuality at youth organizations, public and private schools, and juvenile detention centers around Greater Boston, and on this sunny fall afternoon, she’s at an all-girls’ residential school in Arlington. Six teens have gathered in a small, fluorescent-lit classroom, made name cards in pink and purple ink, and established ground rules like “It is OK to laugh.” A game about decision making led to a question about how old a person must be to “have sex,” which prompted, “What is sex?”
There’s a little snickering, but the ponytailed girl presses ahead, explaining that if they’re going to talk about how old you have to be to do certain things, she wants to know exactly which things falls under the rubric of “sex.”
“OK, great question.” Bell nods at the girl and explains that when “sex” is used to refer to a behavior (as opposed to, say, the male or female sex), it’s usually referring to vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse. She defines all three.
“Does foreplay count?” someone shouts. “No!” another girl replies at exactly the same moment a third asks, “What is foreplay?”
The teens start talking over one another: “My friend said . . .” and “I know this dude who . . .” and “What I heard was . . .” Bell steers them back to the main task at hand.
The girl’s question epitomizes the murky definitions, and murkier goals, that have plagued US sexuality education since its beginnings in Chicago nearly a century ago. We don’t all agree which behaviors constitute “sex,” and we agree even less on what sex means. Seen through different eyes, sex can be a pleasurable activity, a sacrament, a means to procreation, an ecstasy, a disappointment, or a source of shame — the list goes on. These conflicting, deeply personal attitudes toward sex make it difficult to articulate a curricular vision for public schools, where all opinions must be honored…