Outsourcing Sex Ed

The sex ed classes I had as a child were taught by the public schools I attended.

In sixth grade, we were segregated by sex and went into separate rooms to learn about our changing bodies from the school nurse. I don’t know what the boys learned, but the nurse showed us a movie that assured us that eating potato chips and chocolate would not cause pimples. (I think the movie was sponsored by Junk Food Producers of America.)

In high school, our euphemistically titled “health class” was taught by our P.E. teacher, who yawned through six weeks of our inane questions and comments. None of us was comfortable asking any real questions, so the boys took turns raising their hands to say things only tangentially related to the subject, like, “One time, a girl I know put a tampon in the drinking fountain and turned on the water. That thing, like, exploded!”

The teacher handed out mimeographed diagrams of the male and female reproductive system, with arrows and spaces for us to label the various parts. The “vas deferens” jokes were always good for a laugh.

CIMG0507Then we each received an egg. We were supposed to carry this egg around everywhere and try not to break it or we’d get an F.

I did not get an F.

When I had my first child, I was so glad for that egg assignment; it totally prepared me for parenthood.

Well, except for the part where my daughter doesn’t just want to know how babies in general are made, but how her father and I made her and her brother.

“I know all about the sperm and the egg and cell division and all of that,” she said from the back seat of the car one weekend morning. “What I want to know is, how does it happen?”

My spouse makes fun of me for being a prude, but I didn’t hear him jumping in to fill the awkward silence that followed  this question.

We thought we had bypassed all of this awkwardness. Our denomination has a series of great human sexuality curricula for people from kindergarten through adulthood called Our Whole Lives, or OWL for short. Each set of classes includes information and discussions appropriate to the age of the class. I took the 2nd-grade version of the class with our daughter last year. We talked about relationships, families, and different ways that people can build families. Parents shared their children’s birth or adoption stories and brought in baby pictures to share with the class. The kids learned the proper names for their body parts, how to recognize inappropriate touching, and how to advocate for themselves.

And, at the very end of the class series, we talked about intercourse.

All of the classes had been great and challenging in their own ways, but I was nervous about this discussion. I knew our daughter knew about animal reproduction, but I wasn’t sure that she’d ever made the connection between other mammals and humans. As a liberated, modern woman, I wanted my daughter to have all of the information from a trusted source, but as a prude, I would have rather she just absorbed this information by osmosis.

The day of The Class, the teachers asked if anyone knew about intercourse. They didn’t ask that exact question. I was so nervous, I have completely forgotten what their question was, but that was the gist. My daughter, as usual, raised her hand and gave a concise and accurate answer to the question, using human terms for human parts and everything.

After the class, I asked her what she thought of OWL.

“It was okay, but it was all review.”

Well, then, I thought. That was a lot of worry for nothing.

But a year later, here my spouse and I were, vehemently avoiding making eye contact with each other in the front seat, while our daughter waited in the back seat for our answer.

I really hope they have an OWL for 3rd-graders soon. If they don’t have one for my daughter, I could really use one for myself. And I promise not to make vas deferens jokes this time.

Who am I kidding? No one can promise that.

Written for the Remember the Time Blog Hop.


  1. Wow, your daughter’s school has quite the comprehensive program. That’s impressive. Although apparently not comprehensive enough to spare you from the awkward questions. Those are the WORST!! Thank God you didn’t flunk your egg project…imagine how bad it would be had that happened!


    1. It’s actually not her school but our church where we have this great program, but apparently some schools use it, too. I’m glad we have it; I think they’ll do a much better job than I would, egg or no egg.


  2. Back in the 1970s, we had the same model in an upper middle-class, Junior High school (also in the Midwest, not far from your childhood home):

    a) In 5th grade, girls & boys were segregated for an educational film. I don’t recall what boys were shown, but the girl’s version on “hips, boobs and bleeding” is widely available on YouTube.

    b) Then, in 7th grade, our health unit was taught by a gym teacher, just as you related from your own childhood…

    But either I had a better gym teacher, or our school was a bit more progressive. I recall clearly that we didn’t just cover labels or reproductive mechanics. We also discussed contraceptives, emotions of partners, STDs, pregnancy & risk, age of consent, peer pressure, fairness between the sexes, and the potential for behavior that we might regret. In one film (today, it would classified as pornography), we observed an adult couple making love.

    As you might expect, this class held the attention of each student. But surprisingly, there was never any snickering (except, perhaps at a condom demonstration that involved a banana). Kids weren’t just interested…they were mature about lessons. Of course, many of us had already learned the same things from older siblings or from parents who were a bit more relaxed about the discussion than you and your spouse.

    Just as with most families, we didn’t often discuss these things between generations (and we certainly didn’t want details about the practices of our own parents). But with open books and in a study setting, we managed to broach the subject, and it did help to enrich (or offset) the information and experimentation that we engaged in with peers.

    After reading your recollection and talking to others (they are surprised at the progressive and comprehensive sex-ed curriculum in my recollection), I am left wondering if the sex-ed syllabus in school was unusually open, or if my entire state was more relaxed about these things, or if it had more to do with the late baby-boom era?


    1. Your school’s program sounds very much like the older version of Our Whole Lives, called About Your Sexuality (or AYS), which I understand was even more controversial than OWL. The curriculum is non-religious, and I know that some schools use OWL and used AYS, so maybe yours was one that did.

      My high school class did talk about STDs, but there wasn’t any relationship talk or discussions of the emotional side of things. We definitely didn’t use AYS. (Oh, and 6th grade was in the Midwest, but high school was in the DC metro area.)


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