I originally wrote this piece for Secular Woman’s “Sex Ed Conversations” series. It was published on their website on October 20, 2013 and is reprinted here with permission.
I learned about sex because of a Boy Scout merit badge.
My older brother and I were on the way to a Boy Scouts meeting. My dad was nervous the whole time, seeming to stall until the last moment. I am not sure if this conversation would have ever happened naturally. But it did happen, if it only happened because it had to.
My brother and I were working to get our Family Life merit badge in Boy Scouts. Part of earning that badge was learning about sex. Someone had to give us “The Talk,” and — since our Boy Scout troop was a primarily Christian homeschool troop — that responsibility fell on our father. To learn about sex from anyone other than one’s parents was a cardinal sin in my Christian homeschool culture.
Most of the drive was awkward, because we knew we were about to get The Talk. I do not think The Talk necessarily has to be awkward, but it was for our dad. You could feel it in the air. As a result, The Talk never really materialized on the 15-minute drive. Never, that is, until we pulled into the parking lot of the rundown Baptist church where our troop met. Then it was do or die time, and my dad gave us a quick summary of lovemarriagepenisvaginababy. Boom.
That was the extent of my Christian homeschool sex education growing up. It lasted less than five minutes.
I grew up in an almost alternate universe, where courtship methods of the Victorian era were popular and no one spoke of sex except in hushed or negative tones. Sex to Christian homeschoolers was like Voldemort to wizards — That Which Shall Not Be Named. I attended “purity” seminars at which homeschool celebrities like Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, urged audiences of horny teenagers to focus on God and flee that nebulous human demon called Lust.
In that universe, “abstinence only” was not an abstract concept but a concrete reality. I never learned about condoms, or how to use them. I never learned about STDs. As a male, I never learned about menstruation. That was a taboo topic; my parents referred to it as “that time of month” and all I knew was that it was something embarrassing and icky that only women talk about and men just need to know to avoid women during that time.
When I hear people arguing for abstinence-only education these days I cringe. I want to shout at the top of my lungs, “You don’t really want that!” I know what that education looks like because that is the education I received. It was a sham to even call it “education.” It was rather an absence of education. The so-called “abstinence” was an abstinence of knowledge about biology and empowerment about consent.
It did not help me in even a single way.
It did not discourage me from eventually having premarital sex. All it did was make me utterly ignorant of the reality of sex. It did not keep me from so-called sexual immorality. It made me incapable of acknowledging and processing my own experience of sexual abuse as a child.
As I have grown older, and both shared my story as well as heard other stories of former homeschool kids, there are so many similarities between our experiences. Sex felt like something dirty and secretive and repressed up until one’s wedding day, and then magically it was supposed transform into something holy and beautiful and celebrated. Sex was something only men wanted, that was given by women in exchange for love. (I am aware now, too, that this harmful stereotype transcends Christianity and homeschooling.) Men were incapable of controlling their physical desires, always on the brink of the sexual sin of lust. So much so, that women had to carefully don the most modest of clothing to avoid causing men to “stumble.” Men were also only attracted to women and women to men, thereby precluding any conversation about the existence of LGBT* individuals.
And foremost of all: sex education, that insidious tool of the evil secularists and humanists, was a weapon of Satan. It was described in classic misogynistic terms: a “temptress,” a “whore of Babylon,” hired by the Prince of Darkness to lead public schoolers astray. Us homeschoolers, God bless us, we were spared that temptation, as our parents took it upon themselves to raise us righteously, without sex education and its spurious ways.
But dreams run red lights and crash into the curbs of reality awfully hard.
As I hear more and more from former homeschoolers, I hear the same things I myself experienced: that what we were “spared from,” what we were “blessed” to avoid, could have really helped us. No matter how hard our parents tried to keep us unstained from “the world,” the world happened. We grew up. We made mistakes, got drunk, did drugs, made out, had sex; some of us were sexually abused and raped — all the things that happen outside of Christian homeschooling, too. The only difference is we had zero tools to process those things.
It is because of my very experience as a Christian homeschool kid that I am an advocate for comprehensive sex education.
I believe in comprehensive sex education because all people have the right to be empowered. I believe in comprehensive sex education because it is vitally important to know your body, respect your body and other people’s bodies, and understand how to stand up against those people who both want you ignorant of your body and aim to disrespect your body.
Depriving children of that knowledge, for whatever ridiculous religious reasons, is nothing less than educational abuse. It is not pleasing to God or god or anything that is allegedly holy. Ignorance is a unholy prison. Forced ignorance is one of the most soul-crushing experiences one can have.
Children need to be educated about their bodies because that is how children learn how to respect and love them and each other’s.
Children need to be educated about sexuality because sexuality is a fundamentally important part of being human.
Children need to be educated about consent because rape and sexual abuse happen in every community and every culture and you are living in a daydream if you think it will not happen in yours.
The more I learn about the universality of body-shaming, rape culture, and abuse, and the more I hear about how these things happen every day in Christian churches and conservative homeschooling communities, the more I see why sex ed is an absolute must. When we are afraid of sexuality, when we are afraid to talk bluntly and honestly and openly about our bodies and our emotions, we are giving power to those who want to take advantage of our ignorance and our silence. When we are blinded by our ideologies and unwilling to see every human being as worthy of respect and safety, we are giving power to those people advancing shame and bigotry. When we are afraid to name That Which Shall Not Be Named and speak about it plainly, we are only adding to the power of those in our communities — homeschooling, Christian, secular, and otherwise — who will abuse it.
I wish I knew about sex from something other than abuse. But my parents and my homeschooling community could not have changed that, no matter how much they wish they could.
Yet I also wish I knew how to talk about sex from something other than a Boy Scout merit badge. And that is something that my parents and my community could have done differently.
I have spent the last decade catching up on what I missed, on the lessons I never learned. It can be an awfully embarrassing process, but it is a necessary one.
7 thoughts on “Like Voldemort To Wizards: How Christian Homeschooling Made Me A Sex Ed Advocate”
The way our sex ed was handled has, retrospectively, shed light on just how works-based the theology of our so-called “saved-by-grace” churches were. Maybe they could say we were SAVED by grace alone, by you can bet your worth depended on how well you toed the line. And nowhere was that more evident than with perfect, pure, abstinence. At least, the appearance of it.
The secrecy also tends to foster porn addictions (which are finally being acknowledged as a Thing). I suspect it’s not taught because then the teachers might be exposed for their own vices.
Hey Ryan. I greatly enjoy your perspective, even if I may not agree. I had “Abstinence-Only Sex Education,” and I feel none of the hurt or confusion you pointed out.
The problem, I think, is that not all “Abstinence-only sex ed” is the same. It sounds (with uncharacteristically vague bifurcation) from your post like there is “Abstinence-only sex ed,” which, as you describe it, is understandably harmful, and the “Sex ed” you are advocating. The problem is I’m not entirely sure what you’re advocating. Is it just that children should receive some kind of information about sex outside the home?
I wonder if you would consider writing a follow up post (or even a reply, I suppose) to discuss what “Sex ed” entails. It seems like sex, like violence, or alcohol, or anything else that has life-altering consequences, needs to be discussed when children have some degree of maturity to handle it. When do you see the appropriate time to do this? What are the limits of the discussion? Does there just need to be one Talk or could there be several? And how, for those who value some kind of holiness, do you accomplish this without violating your conscience or the conscience of your children?
Thanks for putting your thoughts out there for us all to read. I hope you understand I ask these questions out of admiration, and not out of contempt. Looking forward to your response.
Thank you. Your sex ed was 5 minutes longer than mine (unless rape counts as education). It’s a nice ideal to try to keep children innocent and ignorant, maybe, but it doesn’t work. I definitely agree that empowering kids to understand their sexuality and protect themselves is far more nurturing than hoping and praying they’ll make it through adolescence unscathed with a vague anatomy lesson and warnings of divine wrath if they notice that particular anatomy on themselves or others.
I was never told about sex. I learned everything about that by reading slash/femslash as a child. I read the good stuff too, no lubeless anal for me and lesbian sex=scissoring. I was also never told I would have a period by my mom, but I’d learned about that from the internet by the time I had mine, so I wasn’t surprised and knew what to do. But yeah some of my friends are still SUPER SKETCHY about the details of sex even though they know what it is, and these aren’t kids who have to wear long skirts and never cut their hair, they’re very secular and know pop culture and own electronics and can wear whatever they want.
Have you ever attended an abstinence educational program? These teachers are well trained. The students “DO” learn about STD’s, sex, intercourse, babies , condoms etc…. . They do give them a thorough, comprehensive sex education that also promotes abstinence til marriage.
I have not as a student. I was homeschooled in the 80’s and 90’s. The homeschooling communities and groups I was in did not have any sort of organized abstinence educational program. And they would have been opposed to teaching about most of those things.
I did attend one abstinence educational program for a public school as an adult, to watch a friend lead a program. That particular program did not mention anything about STDs, condoms, etc. It was simply about the “emotional benefits” of abstaining from sex as a teenager.
Wow… that is one powerful testimony. I read your whole note and would like to say a big THANK YOU for being brave enough to share your story, this sex-and-body-shaming nonsense has to stop for once and for all.