The Worst Sex Education: Not Talking About It at All

The Worst Sex Education: Not Talking About It at All February 3, 2016

E[Today’s guest post is written by Karen Garst, former Executive Director of the Oregon State Bar and editor of an upcoming book entitled Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion.]

Two of the most effective manipulative techniques at religion’s disposal are shame and guilt. They are used to turn affection, love, and desire which result in sex outside their narrow confines of marriage into a dirty, sinful act.

Unfortunately, I can attest personally to these effects. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s in a staunchly Lutheran family in Bismarck, North Dakota, I was never taught about the fundamentals of sex. At an outing at the local zoo, I asked my mother “What are the llamas doing riding piggyback?” I received no reply. I only learned some of the fundamentals about my own body when I came home from fifth grade and entered the house yelling at the top of my voice, “Hey, Mom, what does menstruation mean?” The girls in the class had just seen a film, sponsored by Kotex and Walt Disney, that was so obtuse I didn’t even understand it. My mother diligently pulled out a piece of paper and drew the female uterus and ovaries and explained about menstruation. Of course, I never said the word out loud again in my house. But I do still have the little pamphlet they handed out. I wonder why I kept it?

My mother’s explanation did not extend to how those female parts might interact with a male body during sexual intercourse. No, that would have been going too far. For someone who was a virgin when she married my virgin dad, you think she would have had some empathy for the need for knowledge of intimacy. The high school in Bismarck did not have any sexual education classes, abstinence or otherwise. And when the guinea pig in my sophomore biology class gave birth and the male started to attack the newborns, the teacher said nothing and just rushed the cage out of the room.

Thanks, Harold Robbins

My knowledge about sex came by purloining a copy of my sister’s paperback, 79 Park Avenue by Harold Robbins. In that novel, a shop owner rapes a young girl. That is how I learned about intercourse. Great image, right? A few years ago I was in a used bookstore and I bought that same paperback. I still have it but have not had the courage to re-read it. Maybe someday. Because I came by my knowledge from a book, I totally embarrassed myself in junior high by correcting the pronunciation of a girl who said the word whore. “But it is pronounced with a w not an h!”

In junior high a friend’s mother had given her a book on sex education. When I was over at her house one day, she asked me what the word masturbation meant. I had no idea. We looked it up in the dictionary and we still couldn’t figure out what it meant!

Maybe if I had had some sex education I would have known what my older brother was trying to do when he asked me to take my clothes off and lie in bed. He came into the bed and lay on top of me. He didn’t fondle me or rape me, but it was inappropriate to say the least. I didn’t have a clue what he was trying to do. Later, when he got his girlfriend pregnant and they “had” to get married, I told my older sister that I didn’t think she was “that kind of a girl.” I got my first education on being a feminist when my sister upbraided me for blaming her. My sister was seven years older and had been to college and had figured a few things out. But blaming the woman came naturally to me. After all, it was all Eve’s fault, right?

Marriage, Marriage, Marriage

There is another element that plays into the church’s teachings about sex. You must be a virgin when you are married and your goal in life is to be married and have children. From the earliest age, I thought about marriage. After a cute boy walked me home in first grade, I had a question for my parents. Of course I knew he was Catholic. I knew what church or synagogue each of my friends attended. That evening, after supper, I asked my dad if a Lutheran should marry a Catholic. He answered thoughtfully that since marriage was sometimes a difficult proposition, marrying within your faith would be a good idea. Ha, both by sister and I married lapsed Catholics!

But how effectively culture, including religion, defines our goals when from such an early age I thought my role in life was to marry and have kids! While my parents certainly supported education, marriage still became the dominant desire in my heart. I even remember saying a prayer to God for someone to ask me for a date to the senior prom. Being a skinny teenager who always tried to beat the boys in reciting Bible verses in Sunday school probably didn’t help me in getting a date.

I did go out a bit at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Dances were not allowed on campus, but we found a way to make it to North Dakota State University in Fargo or Moorhead State across the creek. This was the era when the girls stood around the edges of the room and the boys walked by each one of us. No girls danced together and no girl ever asked a boy to dance. Embarrassing to say the least.

When I was home at Christmas my senior year, I got a call from a boy whom I had known vaguely in high school. He was a year older. He invited me to a dance in town and I was excited to attend. Later that evening, he confided to me that he had always liked me from afar. Interestingly, he was always dating someone else when we were in school together. Hmmm. He was in medical school and asked me what I thought about marrying a doctor. Yes, that was a bit of a jump on the first date. To make a long story short, we played around a bit before I took off for six months to study in Paris. He gave me his ring and then wrote me a Dear Jane letter halfway through my studies. I purchased a little troll for him in Sweden and sent the ring back to him wrapped around the troll’s legs.

When I returned to Bismarck, I spent the summer working for my dad’s real estate business. About a week before I had to return to school to finish my studies and serve as a teaching assistant, this boy called me. I agreed to go out with him and because he told me he would make it all up to me, I had sex with him. He went off to a different city and I never saw him again in my life.

No Longer a Virgin

So what does a girl do now? She is no longer a virgin, is not getting married to the boy back home, but went on birth control assuming she would. Well, she sleeps with just about anyone who asks. And she thinks that each one might be “the one.”

If I hadn’t gotten some counseling along the way, I probably would still be doing the same. Fortunately I met my husband 27 years ago and we have a wonderful son.

But let’s look at what my life could have been if I had been taught that sex was not something to be silent about. Maybe my parents would have educated me about both men’s and women’s bodies. Maybe they would have talked to me about how natural sex is and that it is to be enjoyed. Perhaps they could have emphasized that I had a long life to live and that I should focus on what I wanted out of life for myself, rather than assuming my only goal would be marriage and kids. And just maybe they could have taught me it was okay to pleasure myself so that I could know what joys my body could give me.

There are many reasons to reject religion but blaming women for original sin, shaming their bodies as dirty and unclean, allowing men to treat them as property, and making sex education taboo, are right at the top of the list.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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garstKaren Garst is the former Executive Director of the Oregon State Bar, editor of Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion (Fall, 2016) and she blogs at

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  • Glandu

    There’s another reason to make sexual education to children(not only girls, but of course girls) : porno. People may find plenty of qualities to porno, but, most of the time, the scenes shown are both unrealistic and violent.

    Preemptive damage control is important, I think. Warning children that movies, are, well, cinema, and that they should NOT expect the real thing to happen like that. At all. It’s already doing a lot of damage. A friend of mine who is social worker in Brittany(western France), told me that for most lost girls he had to take care of recently, a “normal” romantic relationship was in 4 parts : fellatio, vaginal sex, anal sex, facial ejaculation. Normal.

    In my book, that’s “performance”, not love, and I prefer love to performance. And I’d like my own daughter to know there are other models. Her fundagelical mother won’t teach her, so it’s my role. argh.

    • yazikus

      There was a case in the news where a young man had assaulted and videod one girl, showed the video to another girl and then assaulted her as well. The second girl said that although the video showed the first girl resisting, crying and protesting she thought that was what sex was like from what she had seen in porn.

    • This is ultimately a symptom of porn being the only sex education so many people are ever exposed to. In abstinence-only (or even abstinence-preferred) school districts, people are taught only to fear sex and avoid sex, but they nevertheless have the same basic biological impulses as anyone else. Once the underequipped person is unleashed into society in general, that right there is a recipe for disaster. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with pornography. Most mainstream pornography is dreck engineered specifically to get men off, but sometimes it can be quite progressive, depicting healthy, sensual and body-positive interactions. But like everything else (and by everything I mean…everything), pornography is harmful in excess.

  • Jeff

    “This subject doesn’t belong in school; it’s something that should be taught in the home.”

    Conservatives say that all the time about sex education. Why not algebra? History? Everything else? Why is sex education the one subject where parents insist that children only talk to amateurs?

    • Well, they do keep trying to get government out of the schools altogether. The most extreme conservatives believe every one of these subjects should be taught in the home, it’s just sex education is the only part they have a modicum of social traction on.

      • Jeff

        Yeah, if we’re being pedantic, they’re trying to get *every* subject out of schools, so that they can then shut down the schools for no longer having a purpose.

        • It all goes into how American conservatives want to maintain their sense of control over society. They fear that if anyone sees things from a side that isn’t theirs, then they’ll go to the other side (funny how liberals and libertarians never seem to fear that). It’s not just about sex ed, but also science and history.

          They accuse the left of historical revisionism, when much of what they want taught in schools is itself historically inaccurate and revisionistic and designed solely to fit inside a nationalistic, American supremacist world view (The pilgrims and other early European settlers were nice to the natives. Columbus was a badass. The Revolution was won by armed civilians and we’re not even gonna talk about what the French did for us. Oorah.)

          Only the radical right wing fights against evolution being taught in biology class, not just because they sincerely believe that evolution is an invalid theory, but because as Biblical inerrantists they believe the idea of evolution undermines Christianity as a whole–they *cannot allow* for a universe in which evolution is an accurate descriptor of the way things work, not with Genesis written the way it is. And stemming from their hatred of the idea of evolution, they distrust any science that hasn’t yet been applied in the form of engineering.

          So, why do they want sex taught their own way too? Much of Christian morality revolves around sex. Once upon a time, people married young, had babies young, and divorce was unthinkable regardless of whatever damage the marriage might be doing to the family (not long before this, women were institutionalized for requesting divorces), and this is all due to the moral teachings of Christianity. And this wasn’t entirely without reason: when resources are limited, you don’t want people popping out babies left and right, and in a society where the father is responsible for providing for the child, one wants to ensure that the child is actually his responsibility, and the way this is done is by controlling women’s sexuality.

          But then hormonal birth control was invented, paving the way for the sexual revolution and there’s no sign that it’s going to let up anytime soon. For the first time in history, thousands of years of moral teaching were completely overridden by a scientific achievement. For the first time in history, contraception had developed to the point where the risk of an unwanted pregnancy is practically nil–which totally changed how people are allowed to have sex (not that people actually had sex any different at any point in history all the way back to antiquity–they just didn’t talk about it, men still had all the sex they wanted regardless of wedlock, and single mothers were simply shunned and ostracized.) Conservatives think they can legislate and micromanage the schools into turning back the clock on the sexual revolution. But as Conservative columnist Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry wrote in The Week last year, “After all, it’s called the ‘Sexual Revolution,’ not the ‘Sexual Fad That Didn’t Affect How People Live.'”

          Considering how American Evangelical Conservatives seem to view the world (from a position of fear and power), is it any accident that there are so many Evangelical cults like the Duggars, which homeschool their children to shelter them from the evils of society, and don’t even teach anything about sex until their children are already married? All so that they can create more Christian soldiers because they don’t know there’s another option.

          • smrnda

            You would think that the need for isolation or keeping other viewpoints away would be proof that these ideas were nonsense.

    • smrnda

      The reason we have schools is that there are no qualifications to be a parent. There is no reason to assume parents are qualified to teach sex education. Additionally, it’s an awkward topic. Even parents with the knowledge and a willingness might find it a difficult topic to talk to their kids about. And given the high costs of making mistakes, it’s best left to trained professionals.

      Though yeah, agreed with below that they really want everything taught at home. Which is odd, since conservatives are always accusing people on the left of ‘relativism’ but by deciding that each family can teach whatever subject however it wants, it’s like saying ‘there is no such thing as true or relevant when it comes to education.’ And aren’t conservatives all about ‘you need to learn X to get a job?’ I think the issue is that ‘conservatives’ in the USA are more ‘right wing authoritarians.’ Most ‘conservatives’ in other nations support education in real schools by real teachers.

      • Annerdr

        Mother here, with the knowledge and willingness to teach sex ed, found it a very uncomfortable topic. It crosses boundaries – I don’t want to be involved in any way in my child’s sex life! Talked about it anyway because my son deserved to know the facts and I wasn’t sure how the school was handling it. If there were a standardized, common core sex ed curriculum, I could have been saved much discomfort.

        • Otto

          Completely understand.

          My wife and I made a conscious decision to talk about sex with our kids as a natural part of life like anything else. I have never had the ‘talk’ with my son. I have a series of conversations. It has gotten to the point that it no longer bothers me to talk about it with him, it was very uncomfortable for him but now he comes to me with questions and is open with me. Best thing I ever did.

  • katiehippie

    Sounds exactly like my parents. I didn’t even get any info about menstruation. At least my school had that little part.

    • Sophia Sadek

      I was shocked to hear from a twenty-something woman that she knew nothing about menstruation when she got her first period. It was as if she were living in the sixties.

    • Karen Gorder Garst

      You know that video I saw in fifth grade is online. Check it out. The Story of Menstruation (Hollywood, CA: Walt Disney Productions, 1946), uploaded at My editor found the link when she edited my essay!

  • The Eh’theist

    In addition to being informative, I very much enjoyed reading this post. Either you have a great writing style or were lucky enough to have experiences that translate well to prose (or both).

    Thanks very much for showing how the problem of information denial expands as the years go by and how it can contribute to a whole other set of issues beyond the teen years.

    • Karen Gorder Garst

      Thanks for your comments. Isn’t it interesting what you remember from your childhood? I’ve thought a lot about the experiences I outlined above and some of them are in my essay in the book I edited. I could also have written about how different my life might have been had I not been so focused on getting married. However, I have no complaints. Every time I broke up with a guy, my life took a new and different turn. I have had a very eclectic career. I probably wouldn’t have gone to grad school if I had not broken up with the med student. I got a PhD. I broke up with someone in grad school and took a union organizing job in Oregon. And after some counseling, I had two very good relationships the second being the man I have been married to for 27 years.

  • Sophia Sadek

    The llama story reminds me of a time I was at the zoo’s underground exhibit where two bats were going at it. A child asked, “What are they doing?” The docent responded, “They are fighting. They have been fighting all morning.” I commented that they are not fighting, but making baby bats. The docent should have been ashamed of himself.

    • Karen Gorder Garst

      Absolutely. What’s funny is my grandparents both lived on farms. You think I might have picked that up earlier.

  • yazikus

    I really enjoyed this post, and look forward to more!

    • Karen Gorder Garst

      Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • Katrina Michele

    Karen Garst, thank you so much for your article. Your sexual non-education reads practically the same as mine, but in the 1980s. I, too, was Lutheran, went to Lutheran schools from 1st to 12th grade and had a mother who only showed me a child’s picture book of a little girl growing short to tall. No sex ed in school, of course. Mom told me I was to get a period and stuck a box of Kotex pads in my closet. I asked her over and over, “but what IS a period”. “It’s the time of your life.. blah, blah, blah”. I would have loved to see that Disney video. At least I would have gotten SOME information. One week I thought I was stooling in my panties, was mortified and stuck them in the hamper day after day. I was terrified and thought I would be in big trouble. When my mom did laundry that week, she gleefully told me that I got my period. Needless to talk about the rest… it’s pretty obvious how horribly my teen and twenties went. Sex a sin, submit to a man, remain a virgin until married, go to college – yet it was to meet your future husband, buy a 4-door car to put the children in. Turns out, there were no children. It was only after I left the Lutheran church that I started to feel fulfilled. Thank you for this. I don’t feel as alone.

    • Karen Gorder Garst

      Katrina. It looks like we have more than the first letter of our names in common. I remember my mother telling me a period should last about four days. I stopped wearing the Kotex pad after four days and was mortified when I kept bleeding. But I also remember when my older sister gave me a Midol for cramps. She was my guardian angel.

  • gexpl

    Great, engaging writing. Thank you for sharing your story!

    I got a little more sex education than this, but it was still painfully little (read: a James Dobson book on adolescence and development which spent all of 2 sentences explaining sex). The description I got made no sense because I didn’t have any idea what a penis looked like or how it worked. I remember being embarrassed when, in college, my roommate made some joke about a man “getting hard” and his penis “going up” and I had no idea what she meant or how that could possibly work!