Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

How Can We Unscrew Ourselves?

At Tonic and Broadly, we're taking a close look at the future of sex ed because, let's face it, America's relationship with sex is complicated.

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Oct 26 2017, 5:50pm

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

In "Unscrewing Ourselves," we explore the state of sex ed today by highlighting the individuals changing our sexual health for the better.

It's become apparent that we are screwing ourselves into poor health: Young people in the US are giving each other STDs at unprecedented rates, per a CDC report out last month. Numbers of people with chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis (syphilis!) have skyrocketed; young people aged 15-24 account for the highest proportion of these rising numbers. Not surprisingly, communities across the US are affected in radically disproportionate ways.

We decided to investigate the systemic and behavioral reasons for why this is happening. According to a survey conducted by Tonic, of 4,000 people ages 18 to 34, there are some dark things happening in our bedrooms, and not in a kinky way. Over a quarter of the people surveyed said they had never been tested for an STD, a majority said that they weren't tested before their last hookup and three-quarters of those who are non-monogamous said they don't use a condom every time they have sex.

Though many assume this problem is primarily linked to how young people are having sex or building their relationships, we realized that the problem starts much earlier—when we first talk about sex (or don't) as children, and we learn about sexuality and sexual health in school. And after talking to researchers, activists and educators, we uncovered some truly fundamental problems with our sex education system.

While we're pretty sure we're not the only ones interested in uncovering more about our sexual habits and behaviors, we found that when it comes to issues around sexual health and STDs, many of us still face barriers to creating meaningful, open dialogues. Seventy percent of the people Tonic surveyed said they "sometimes or never" talk about STDs before a hookup. Not surprising, given the stigma that surrounds STDs and how few tools and resources we have for talking about sexual health. And there are very real ramifications to this trend—including neurological problems and blindness from undiagnosed syphilis, infertility from undiagnosed chlamydia or gonorrhea, and the increasingly real horror of antibiotic-resistant (read: untreatable) gonorrhea.

Both the stigma around sexual health and spread of STDs disproportionately affects communities of color; black youth in the US especially at risk, as they are more likely to be hypersexualized by the media, seen as adults as young as the age of five, and stuck in underfunded schools where comprehensive sex ed often isn't a top priority. Additionally, many states still largely ignore sexual violence and sexual assault prevention, which means that while approximately one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18, few have the language to talk about their bodies or personal boundaries, resulting in fewer young victims who even come forward to report sexual abuse.

Aside from the fact that condom technology isn't as good as it could be, it's easy to see where these missteps originate: 26 states in the US require that sex ed teachers emphasize abstinence as the main form of birth control and STD prevention, and only 13 states that mandate sex ed require the information be medically accurate. Abstinence-only education not only fails to delay the age when teens first have sex, but also fails to reduce unintended pregnancies and the spread of STDs. In some states, abstinence-only education prevents schools from teaching about consent and spotting sexual abuse. But it doesn't look like this is getting better anytime soon: As Justin Lehmiller reports, the Trump administration's proposed federal budget for 2018 seeks to spend $160 million on abstinence-until-marriage programs while eliminating funding for evidence-based sex education.

And of course there's the reality that the way we think about sexuality and sex today doesn't match with what we're taught in school. Though more than half of all young people currently don't identify as straight, only 12 states mandate that sexual orientation is discussed and three of those require that the information around sexual orientation be negative. This lack of education—and even miseducation—directly contributes to young people feeling ashamed and stigmatized about their sexual health, often before they are even having sex. While states like California are paving the way by mandating LGBTQ-inclusive, comprehensive sex education—which includes consent-based education—schools still aren't being held accountable for teaching the curriculum.

With additional budget cuts for sex ed programs looming, we aren't willing to wait for lawmakers to catch up to what young people across the US already understand: It's our basic human right to know about our health and demand ownership over our own sexual lives. Of course, we're not alone and we're also not the first: We're highlighting the work of DIY advocates and progressive educators who are taking sex ed into their own hands by fighting for transparency and autonomy over our bodies and sexual lives. We're rolling out explicit STD explainers, and hosting a talk on the future of sexual health and sex education in the US, featuring Dr. Gillian Dean, Senior Medical Director, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Cecilia Gentili, Director of Policy at GMHC, among others. We've even partnered with Planned Parenthood on a chat widget so that you can ask a sexual health educator your questions.

We write about sexual pleasure, sexual fetishes, and just sex fairly often at VICE—mostly because sex is an important part of our lives, and the honest details and marginalized perspectives around sex often go underreported in other outlets. We also often report on the micro and macro roadblocks our communities face to living fulfilling, healthy lives and achieving economic, political, and social equality. And now more than ever, we see these two areas of interest as inextricably linked. Given our current news cycle, where allegations of sexual misconduct are making headlines almost everyday, it's clear that we need to start the conversation about sexuality and sexual health earlier. We must give people both the knowledge and the vocabulary to speak openly about sex and advocate for themselves and their boundaries so we can end the cycle of abuse and create a more empowered and protected population. Our first step forward is to use our platforms as spaces where we can share knowledge and learn together—taking back control over our own sexual experiences to create a safer, more inclusive world for, hopefully, better fucking futures.