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Op-ed: Sexual Education in America Is Failing Us

Op-ed: Sexual Education in America Is Failing Us

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Why our deeply rooted hangups about sex are not helping the cause of LGBT equality -- or kids' self-image.

Sex education has seldom been taken seriously or valued, and this misunderstanding has had a very negative effect for girls and boys, especially those within the LGBTQ community. Yet gay or "straight," we all share some level of sexual confusion when growing up.

To date, there are only about six accredited human sexuality programs in the United States and only one Ph.D. program, at Widener University. That's insane! And that trickles down into education for younger people, especially when you look at regions of the country where age-appropriate sexual education is nonexistent. Sure, there are psychology and sociology programs in higher education, but we need more comprehensive programs that look objectively at the entire spectrum of human sexuality and sexual behavior. Not only will better sexual education help us understand ourselves, and our children, it will lead to greater understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ people in society.

The fundamental problem with all the debate about oversexualization and hypermasculinity is that we fail to see how our connections to the Puritan past have compromised sexuality throughout our lifetimes. Most of us have been brought up to see the nude human body as a shameful sight. We consider a girl's first period to bedirty. Both the shame about her developing body and the so-called dirtiness of becoming a woman could leave her self-esteem in shambles. Then add to that a culture that tells her she needs to be noticed at all costs, and she is left confused. Gail Dines, the author of Pornland, put it more brutally, but I will translate: A girl is either not noticed at all, or she is "doable." No wonder so many young girls are in flux.

I tend to agree with psychotherapist Kerry Cohen. She argues in Dirty Little Secrets that the real problem is not necessarily the oversexualization of girls; rather, we have failed to address the much-needed business of sexual understanding. Gay and transgender people have borne the brunt of this misunderstanding. As is true with girls more generally, LGBT people have been oversexualized by society and as a result are seen as threats to the status quo. We live in a world where girls, whether they are gay or straight, aren't allowed to understand and own their sexuality, without shame.

But to be fair, it's all about sex and shame for boys too. Masturbation still has a religious stigma attached to it, and at the same time many boys learn about sex through Internet pornography; honest talk and guidance about sex are still taboo. We say it's normal for a boy to go wild, but if a girl does, she is doing the same thing as a prostitute. Yet both have the same sexual feelings. Many boys are still taught to "get the girl" -- and it must be a girl -- at all costs or else their masculinity is in question. No wonder so many feel confused about their sexuality and connect their sexual identity with aggression. Add to that all the violent sex offered to boys via the Internet, where gagging and tying up girls may seem like normal behavior when it's anything but normal.

But parents, before you panic and circle the wagons, here's the demand you should be making. If you want to protect your kids, then ask for more sex education -- yes, starting in preschool. What we need is a much better understanding of human sexuality, throughout all points of life. We cannot change the negative stigma associated with sexuality and kids easily, but we can educate and learn. I think it's a reasonable assumption that if we all understood our sexuality better, even if "deviant," we might be much better citizens. We should guide boys and girls to understand what it means to have positive relationships instead of locking them into stereotypical gender roles. After all, sex is going to come into the equation sooner or later. Let them -- and us -- be prepared.

JUSTIN FOREST is a professor of English literature, and a sex researcher with an MLSt in sex and taboo studies. He has reported on sex trafficking for the United Nations and received a Fulbright Scholarship for a course program on pre-teen sexuality, sexual deviance, and the sexualization of children. He is the author of Lolita in the Lion's Den and a blogger for the Huffington Post where he interviews experts in the field of sexuality, gender & sexuality law, and sex ed.

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