In the US today, most states don’t require schools to teach sex education at all. Upper Arlington High School senior Shoshana Cohn considers that a problem—and decided to do something about it.
Repeated studies have shown that comprehensive, medically accurate sex education is effective at lowering teen pregnancy and STD rates, while abstinence-only education does more harm than good. Yet only twenty-two out of fifty states mandate that the subject be offered, and only nine oblige curriculums to also provide inclusive, LGBT-positive information.
Cohn, who identifies as non-binary, created and designed The Sex Ed Project to be “accessible, fair, and informative.” As its About page explains, “This website was created to be different, modernized, and accepting. Language is intended to be queer- and trans-friendly.”
Information on the site is “presented in a way that normalizes forms of sex other than penis-in-vagina sex,” explaining not only different types of intercourse but safer sex methods, consent, and even asexuality. Other topics covered are gender and sexual identity, anatomy, STDs, healthy versus abusive relationships, myths and misconceptions, and “what to do if…”
The site notes that all information “is accurate and up to date to the best of the creator’s knowledge,” and Cohn really shows their work: each page has multiple citations, both proving that their research was from reputable sources and giving visitors a jumping-off point to learn more.
To learn more, 429Magazine spoke with Cohn in an exclusive interview.
dot429: First, what inspired you to create the Sex Ed Project?
Shoshana Cohn: I had to take health online at a Mormon university over the summer. Their sex ed program, needless to say, was disappointing. I noted a distinct lack of contraception information, absolutely no mention of queer people or sex between them, and one of the test questions was “What can sex do?” One of the correct answers was “reduce your self-esteem.” I was disappointed, to say the least.
Approaching the start of my senior year, I noticed an increase of social media posts with titles like “things I wished sex ed had taught me,” “things I didn’t know about my body,” etc. It was that coupled with the failure of the sex ed component of my online health class that put sex ed in my mind when it came to choosing a subject [for my senior project].
I knew I wanted to make something that was easy for teenagers to access…[and]I wanted something that would be lasting. The Sex Ed Project was created with the intention of continuation.
So, long story short: I took a bad health class and decided to make a website with the information I felt I and others deserved.
dot429: What kinds of reactions has it gotten?
SC: A lot of students at my school have approached me and told me that they love the site, have asked me questions about how I made it, and have told me that they’ve learned a lot from the website. All of the reactions I’ve gotten so far have really just been overwhelmingly supportive and I am so happy with it.
dot429: I’m impressed by the depth of information on your site. How did you decide what to include?
SC: I wanted to include topics in which I knew a large amount of people had expressed feelings of ignorance. Anatomy (mainly that involving the vagina), numerous contraception methods (including dams, finger cots, hormonal forms, etc), healthy relationships, and abuse within relationships were all things I knew had to be included. Many people don’t know that those with vaginas don’t pee out of the vagina itself. (And don’t get me started on the hymen.)
Many don’t know about anything other than the pill and the external condom, don’t know what abuse looks like and have trouble communicating in their relationships because they haven’t been told how. These are topics that I felt were lacking, and I drew upon research I did earlier in the year for my thesis paper to decide on these subjects.
Gender and sexuality were a must. So many people don’t know about sexualities other than straight and gay, and there’s a lot of stigma surrounding bisexuality, pansexuality, and asexuality. Gender was important to me (not only because I am non-binary) but because I know that there are so many teenagers out there who would feel better about themselves if they knew that there were others who felt the same way as them. There are very little sources of information pertaining to gender and sexuality for teenagers, and that’s just sad. I wanted to do something about that.
I threw in “Myths and Misconceptions” because pop culture presents a lot of myths and ideas that simply aren’t true (double bagging, virginity as a whole, etc).
“What To Do If…” is in there because there are a lot of situations that teenagers just aren’t taught how to handle in sex ed classes. Teenagers aren’t taught how to handle finding a lump on a breast or a testicle, they aren’t taught how to deal with being raped, a lot of teens don’t know what to do or where to go if they have unprotected vaginal sex and are concerned about conception. It’s a real issue and it’s sad.
TL;DR: I chose the subjects I knew teenagers weren’t being taught in their schools and had expressed interest in learning.
dot429: Are you planning to expand the information available on the website? If so, on what topics?
SC: I’m planning to continue work on the website. I’d like to add more about queer-platonic relationships and queer experiences and resources, but I found most of what I could.
I’d love for people to send me ideas for what they want to see on the site so I can know what I need to continue working on. Intersexuality is another topic I would love to expand on—unfortunately, the subject lacks a lot of information. I’ll keep working on that, because I definitely was not satisfied with the amount of information I included.
dot429: The most common argument I hear against sex ed is, basically, that knowing more about sex will encourage kids to have it, and/or that abstinence-only teaching will keep them safe. In your view, is it even possible to talk (or scare) determined teenagers out of having sex?
SC: Short answer: No, I don’t think so.
Long answer: Research has found that comprehensive sex ed does a better job at reducing teen pregnancy and STD rates than abstinence-only education does. The error in abstinence-only education is that it says “Hey, don’t have sex. Just say no,” and it expects all of its students to respond with “Okay.” The problem with this is that it’s not always going to be like that. A lot of teenagers who want to have sex will have sex, and…it’s our duty to understand that and to teach kids how to have sex safely.
We shouldn’t be scaring kids. We shouldn’t be turning sex into this thing that’s dirty and wrong and scary…For those who want to have it, sex is something that is natural and can be fantastic if you’re doing it safely. Knowing more about sex includes knowing more about contraception and its importance, communicating with your partner, and being responsible about STDs and pregnancy.
These are fantastic things that every teenager should know. We can’t be afraid of sex, and we can’t keep trying to make teenagers afraid of sex too. They’re curious, they’re hormonal, and they’re human. Sex is going to happen no matter how hard people try to tell teenagers to say no. It’s our responsibility to teach them safety in sex.
dot429: Most or all of the debate around schools teaching sex ed seems like it would be moot if parents taught their children even the basics. What do you think?
SC: I’m all for parents teaching their children sex ed…[but]it should be correct, unbiased, non-moralizing information. Not only would that reduce the strain put on schools to teach sex education but it would help to foster close parent-child relationships that would encourage communication, trust, and self-discovery.
With that said, I don’t think it would eliminate the need for sex ed in schools. The basics just aren’t enough, and if schools are trying to prepare kids for successful adult life, then I do think there has to be a sex ed component to education.
I think we do need to have authority figures presenting information on gender, sexuality, anatomy, and sex in a way that shows it is factual and human nature rather than something that makes you look around and laugh nervously. Sex is important and it should be normalized. I don’t think removing it from schools would help with that.