Stigma Around Sex Contributes to Gender Inequity

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Graphic by Lena Hardsity

Let’s talk about sex. High schoolers are having it–that won’t change–but the conversation around it can.

We understand discussing sex with your teacher and peers can be uncomfortable, but these conversations are a vital part of normalizing sex. Creating a culture where sex isn’t taboo is the first step to developing a better understanding of rape culture, sexual preference, consent and pleasure. 

“When you don’t have heatlhy conversations about sex, you are only left with aphorisms,” English teacher Kati McConn said. “Your sex education becomes ‘a condom is cheaper than a baby’ or’ abstinence is the only way.’ You only have the functional education and are not exposed to the emotional reality of sex.” 

Without having those healthy conversations, people have false understandings about what sex looks like and how to respect their potential partners. 

“The general rule that I’ve had for myself is that at a party, if I think a girl is under the influence, I just don’t do anything,” senior Joe Gormley said. “If you are interested in that person, wait until [she’s] sober. But a lot of people at MI don’t follow this.” 

While students talk about consent in the classroom, it feels like people often forget these conversations during real, intimate experiences and hook-ups. 

“In high school, your job is to push boundaries and I think that sometimes people forget that consent is not a boundary to push,” McConn said. “I feel like asking for consent has become this sterile thing when it shouldn’t be. Consent should be part of the experience.”

People also feel pressure to start having sex out of a fear of being called a prude.

“The biggest social issue around sex at Mercer Island is the pressure for people to start having it,” senior Ava Wampold said.  

Teenagers should never feel pressure to engage in sexual behavior before they are ready.

“We spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to others,” R&R Counselor Ariel Schachter said. “How can you check in with yourself and make sure you are making decisions based on your values, where you are at, and your own process?” 

But it goes the other way too; there’s also judgement for having too much sex. Girls are either virgins or whores.

“Girls want to be careful about how they portray themselves because there is this fear that if you are this ‘Madonna’ figure then you can be easily taken advantage of,” McConn said.

Boys also face sexual expectations from peers.

“There is an underlying pressure in certain friend groups where guys are expected to have sex in high school,” Gormley said. 

There is nothing wrong with being sexually active in high school. It is a normal experience that teenagers should feel comfortable having. However, sex also requires a certain maturity level of those involved to be smart, safe and respectful.  

“When sex isn’t normalized and conversations aren’t happening, people are getting pregnant too young,” Wampold said. “While unwanted pregnancies aren’t talked a lot about on Mercer Island, they do happen. A lot of people here tend to have the resources to deal with that through abortion or Plan B.”

The concept of “virginity” and more specifically “losing your virginity” carries weight for many teenage girls.

“Losing your virginity, that term and that thing, is a social construct,” Wampold said. “It’s a boundary put up by men in order to control women and give them labels. Losing your virginity or popping your cherry isn’t a real thing.” 

This patriarchal narrative extends into the classroom where students are constantly exposed to stories involving sexual abuse, usually where women are the victims. While sexual assault is not exclusively a female’s reality, it often gets represented as one. 

“Juliet was 13 and Romeo was 18. In our world, that’s rape,” McConn said. “In Purple Hibiscus, Mama is being raped and beaten. Unfortunately, we only hear about these bad things that happen, but I think that it’s important to normalize those experiences to a certain extent so that people who have experienced that can feel safe coming forward.”

So how can we have these complex conversations in a school setting? 

“If you teach a bunch of freshman about sex, the maturity level isn’t there. But at the same time, for some people, that’s when they have sex,” Gormley said.

Even though most students are receiving a formal sex education in Image, the conversation needs to go beyond a singular, often awkward health unit. 

“Personally, I would love to talk about sex in class,” Wampold said. “I think it adds a whole other dimension and intricate layer to the conversations we have.”

“It is important to have open communication [about sex] because it aligns with development,” Schachter said. “[Students should] not feel shame or guilt around curiosity.”

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