Let’s Stop Ignoring the Truths of Puberty.

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We’re Making It Even More Awkward.

Sex education in U.S. schools is lacking, but new efforts to broaden its scope are bubbling up.

By Maya Salam

“I’d rather they just don’t teach anything if they can’t be honest.”

— Susan Lontine, a Colorado state representative who introduced a bill that would mandate teachings about safe sex, consent and sexual orientation in the state’s public schools

By the time I was 15, most of my knowledge about puberty was gleaned from one-dimensional tales on TV and in movies. I learned what it meant when a pubescent boy carried a book in front of his body (cue laugh track) and that when girls develop breasts, boys (and men) “can’t help but” ogle them. That’s about it.

In the last year or so, TV and film have made strides in representing pubescent girls as complex and awkward beings who also happen to be sex-obsessed (a trait normally reserved for adolescent boys), my colleague Amanda Hess pointed out in a recent piece about the shows “PEN15” and “Big Mouth” and the movie “Eighth Grade.”

“The lustful adolescent girl is having her moment,” wrote Hess, a Times culture critic. “It is not, to be clear, an altogether glorious time,” she said, adding that “girls’ feelings matter, too. And these girls feel so much.”

Such nuances and acknowledgments of female sexuality are largely missing from sex education in U.S. schools, where curriculum is lacking over all.

The majority of states don’t mandate sex ed at all, and just 13 require that the material be medically accurate. Abstinence education remains a pillar of most programs. And that is saying nothing of more complex issues like consent, sexual orientation and gender identity. (In seven states, laws prohibit educators from portraying same-sex relationships positively.)

Simultaneously, the influence of pornography is growing. “Easy-to-access online porn fills the vacuum, making porn the de facto sex educator for American youth,” Maggie Jones wrote in The New York Times Magazine last year. Her article pointed to a study in which high schoolers reported that pornography was their primary source for information about sex — more than friends, siblings, schools or parents.

“There’s nowhere else to learn about sex, and porn stars know what they are doing,” one boy told Jones.

But to keep up with the times, new efforts to broaden the scope of sex ed are bubbling up.

A pornography-literacy course, titled The Truth About Pornography, was a recent addition to Start Strong, a peer-leadership program for teenagers headquartered in Boston and funded by the city’s public-health agency.

In Colorado, a new comprehensive, student-supported sex education bill is working its way through the state’s Legislature. It would require the teaching of safe sex, consent and sexual orientation, as well as bar abstinence-only sex education. If passed, Colorado would be the ninth state to require that consent be taught.

And today, the first guide to gender-inclusive puberty education was published by Gender Spectrum, a nonprofit organization that works to create gender-sensitive and inclusive environments for children.

Among other principles, the guide — intended to give educators tools they can incorporate into existing course materials — stresses the complexity of gender as the interrelationship between one’s body, identity and expression. The point, according to Gender Spectrum, is to “ensure that no student’s passage through puberty is stigmatized or made invisible.”

Perhaps leading the way is the British government, which last week announced a major change to the nation’s sex education curriculum, the first revision in decades. Starting in 2020, it will cover topics including same-sex relationships, transgender people, menstruation, sexual assault, forced marriage, pornography and sexting.

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