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Trials, taboos of sex ed

With+an+inconsistent+discussion+on+the+importance+of+sex+education+across+Texas+schools%2C+students+often+receive+information+on+the+topic+through+friends%2C+the+internet+and+other+sources.%26%23160%3B
Photo by Graphic by Haylea Keith

With an inconsistent discussion on the importance of sex education across Texas schools, students often receive information on the topic through friends, the internet and other sources. 

The birds and the bees talk has long been a taboo rite of passage.
From middle school health videos and awkward conversations with parents to a world of sexualized media and pornography, there is little consistency in how people first learn about one of humanity’s most primal instincts. In the Bible Belt, this taboo is even further stigmatized.
In 2020, Texas’ State Board of Education revised its state-level requirements on teaching sexual education in Texas primary schools for the first time since 1997, according to an article in the Texas Tribune.
“Starting in 2022, seventh and eighth grade students in Texas will learn about forms of birth control beyond abstinence, but middle schoolers still won’t have to learn about the importance of consent or the definitions of gender identity and sexual orientation,” the article reads.
However, from sixth grade to 12th grade, sexual education in Texas is still focused on teaching one method above all others: abstinence.
“The student is expected to … analyze the importance of abstinence from sexual activity as the preferred choice of behavior in relationship to all sexual activity for unmarried persons of school age; and discuss abstinence from sexual activity as the only method that is 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, STDs and the sexual transmission of HIV or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and the emotional trauma associated with adolescent sexual activity,” the Texas Administrative Code reads.
Yet, Texas schools are not required to teach sexual education at all, and if schools choose to, parents can sign a waiver exempting their student from the unit, according to the Texas Tribune. This difference in curriculum leads to many discrepancies among students’ individual knowledge across the state.
Psychology professor Mindy Bergman, Ph.D., teaches a course at Texas A&M on human sexuality. Due to the varying levels of sexual education students receive in secondary schools across Texas, Bergman said there is a wide variety of knowledge she sees in students when they first walk into her college classroom.
“Most students know some stuff, and then there’s some students who literally think that a penis is called a ‘boner’ because there’s a bone, even though there’s not,” Bergman said. “[Some students] don’t know how their own periods work, and they don’t really understand how contraception works. I mean, [there are] people who know almost nothing.”
Bergman said there is a general silence in society around sex, which has also created a silence around consent. The lack of discussion around consent can lead to scenarios where boundaries are crossed, sometimes without the violator or victim ever realizing, she said.
“You really can’t talk about consent unless you’re talking about sex,” Bergman said. “When we don’t talk about sex and consent, we don’t establish clear rules or norms. It’s all ambiguous, and people have to contest those boundaries to figure out where they are.”
Bergman said students should be taught about sex, including what their own body parts are called, as well as what they can do, throughout their entire lives in order to eliminate the potential for confusion or crossed boundaries as they get older.
“I think [sexual education] is necessary throughout the entire life,” Bergman said. “Children should be taught all of their body parts; when they start asking questions about their bodies, they should learn penis and vagina right at the time they learn elbow and knee. It’s absolutely critical.”
Journalism junior Ruben Hernandez said his middle school in Mission was supposed to have a sexual education unit, but the teachers ended up avoiding it. Hernandez said the first time sex was ever mentioned in a classroom setting for him was his anatomy class in 10th grade, where the teachers mainly discussed the biology of genitals. He said consent was never discussed in school.
“If you talk about sex [in south Texas], they’re like, ‘Don’t say that. No, don’t talk about that. Are you dirty? Are you a pervert?’ So, it’s very hard to talk about,” Hernandez said.
​​Hernandez’s parents did start talking to him about sex around the age of 15, he said.
“It was more like, ‘If you’re gonna do it, at least be safe. At least wear a condom.’ The kind of thing like, ‘If you get someone pregnant, I’ll kill you,’ you know?”
Communication junior Nayeli Saldaña, who grew up in Houston, said the first time she ever heard about sex was in her sixth grade health class.
“I honestly didn’t even know [sex] was a thing until like sixth grade, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going on?’ And then I asked my mom, but she didn’t really answer anything. She was like, ‘Just listen in the class,’” Saldaña said. “[Talking about sex at home] was generally avoided. To this day, I haven’t talked about sex with my mom.”
That sixth grade health class was the one and only time Saldaña said sex was ever discussed in a classroom setting for her. While the class did discuss how to have safe sex, including demonstrations on how to put on a condom, as well as the biology of male and female genitals, Saldaña said she had to learn the technicalities of how to actually engage in sex from conversations with her friends.
“The things I did learn about sex was through my friends just because I wasn’t taught a lot,” Saldaña said. “My friends in middle school did tell me about … what sex was and how to have it, the differences between oral and vaginal and anal sex, stuff like that … like what masturbation was, what porn was. Some of my friends in high school would do that stuff, so I would hear their stories.”
Socially, Hernandez said his friends usually only discussed sex in a joking manner, mostly using inappropriate gestures.
“I’m not sure how it is for girls, but for guys, the first experience talking about sex, it’s more of a joke rather than a serious discussion,” Hernandez said. “It’s not something where you can be like, ‘How do I do this?’ Because if you start asking questions, they’re like, ‘What are you, immature?’”
His lack of sexual education led him to the internet, to things like pornography, fanfiction and dirty manga, in order to keep up with his friends’ knowledge, Hernandez said.
“Internet culture has really changed the perception of sex, so whatever [your friends] pick up on, you have to pick up on as well,” Hernandez said. “The school’s lacking their education on sex has made students seek out their own definitions of sex, because … we see it in cultures, we see it in movies, we see it in music videos, and if it’s not being taught to us, then we might as well look into it [ourselves]. And if we’re looking into it, then we’re obviously going to stumble onto the wrong things, and that definitely ruins our perception [of sex].”
Bergman said sexual education is most beneficial to students when they are receiving fact-based and value-based instruction from several sources who have the proper specialized knowledge.
“Students would be best served by having multiple resources for sex education, so not just your parents, not just a book, not just PornHub, not just your church … because there is education about facts, about how these things work, and there’s also education about values and expectations, and those all come from different sources and different levels of knowledge,” Bergman said. “Your parents may not necessarily know what hormones are going on at different levels in your body, but they do have their values.”
Additionally, Bergman said for the benefit of future generations, society must begin breaking the silence around sex and encourage more age-appropriate education. She said, despite the popular belief that avoiding talking about sex will prevent young people from having it, research shows teenage pregancies are actually more likely to occur when sex is not discussed.
“The reality is, teenagers have sex whether you’re talking about it or not,” Bergman said. “The real question is, do we want to have teenagers who have responsible, safer sex, that is good for you, enjoyable, safe — or at least, reduced-risk — respectful [and] private, or are we going to have them just have sex and hope for the best? I would much prefer educated sex than uneducated sex in our society.”
Because of the taboo surrounding sex within her household, Saldaña said it was never a topic she felt comfortable discussing.
“I never talk about it [in general]. I don’t have a lot of knowledge about it just because I never talk about it,” Saldaña said. “I think I would’ve been more comfortable talking about it if I knew more about what sex is.”
Bergman said she hopes future generations of parents and educators will work toward breaking the silence and taboo around sexual education.
“We’re doing a disservice to a lot of [kids],” Bergman said. “It would be much better if we just talked about it, if we were just more direct, but it’s very hard to break the cycle of this silence that we have.”

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