What Sex Education Could Be Like

Does sex ed include information on human interactions beyond ‘here’s where the parts go’?

I still remember walking into health class my first day in high school and trying to figure out why they were showing us pictures of people’s rashes.

In my case it was doubly confusing, since being homeschooled up until that point meant this was only the third or fourth class I’d ever been to. I’m not sure exactly what a middle school health class is like, but from what I gather it contains at least enough information to both correlate the awkward (and typically crude) discussions amongst students outside of class as well as hint at what’s coming when you hit the Health Class Big Leagues in high school. So yeah, I was a little blind going in.

Truthfully, I’m not really sure what I learned … maybe that adults don’t know what to tell us about sex? It’s dirty and evil? If you have sex your penis will fall off? Whatever it was, it didn’t stick, and it didn’t include any information about emotions, intimacy, and human interaction beyond the nitty gritty “here’s where the parts fit” and “pregnancy is like having an alien in your belly” stuff.

The first school dance I went to was homecoming. I asked a girl from one of my classes who was maybe even more shy and quiet than I was (quite a feat). I remember two things from that event: one was my first time rocking out to Metallica’s Enter Sandman, which is a time honored guy nerd tradition at school dances (note: you have to request the song). The other is that the next time I saw her I had no idea what to say. I didn’t want to be her boyfriend, which is what I thought was the next step after going to a dance, but we weren’t even dating so did I have to “break up” with her?

I could have used some emotional literacy right about then. It might have played a little better than telling her I thought I might be gay. All I remember is feeling like the world’s biggest jerk … fifteen years later and it’s still one of the most embarrassing moments I’ve ever had (to be clear, the embarrassment has nothing to do with mine or anyone else’s sexual/romantic preference, it’s because lying about who you are is not something my parents encouraged).

But that’s the thing about being in high school, adults don’t want to tell you anything you really need/want to know, and they definitely don’t want to talk about how to have feelings. As a result, my emotional vocabulary during year 1 of high school was pretty much just “Awesome,” “I’m mad,” and “That girl is sexytime.”

At home, I probably had it better than most kids. My dad was a good dude and never was there a harder working guy, but we didn’t ever talk about emotions. I think he assumed if he taught us multiplication and subtraction and made sure we were doing our chores that would instill the needed moral character. My mom did a great job of helping my brother and sister and I express ourselves, and I never felt repressed, but I also didn’t really have any framework for growing from a boy into a man and there wasn’t a lot of talk about sex much less intimacy or relationships.

When I look back at high school and college, I realize there was little direct talk and even fewer emotional tools provided around what it means to be an actual human being, and not just some movie superhero. Luckily for me I’ve always been a voracious reader of a wide variety of books so that helped, but from age eleven to twenty-two there is an astonishing lack of real, meaningful emotional literacy for boys and young men (it’s not so great for girls either).

As a man in America I’m all too familiar with the cultural messaging: man up, be cool, play your cards close, be a rock, and the list goes on … . But those things aren’t very good tools when you face some of life’s more ambiguous challenges: like, how long should you wait to have sex for the first time? Or, if a friend dies how long are you supposed to feel fucked up for?

I’m not going to pretend that emotional literacy would solve all the problems in our culture, but when you start acknowledging / sorting / managing feelings and practicing empathy and real emotional interaction with those around you, it opens doors you never even knew were there.

Call it the true “manning up” or whatever you like, but it’s time for men to develop strategies and start supporting each other, and younger generations too. Emotional literacy is powerful, and it is something fathers, teachers, community leaders, and the rest of us should be passing on.


Read more: “There’s More to Sex Education Than Teaching Reproduction”

Image of male and female icon courtesy of Shutterstock

About Joe Cardillo

Joe Cardillo is a media professional, DIY musician, and writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He believes the point of life is to connect to other people and acknowledge the absurdity/terror/joy of the human condition. You can find him on Twitter @joecardillo and read more of his writing on his blog, trialofthecentury.wordpress.com


  1. Something they need to teach is how to ask out someone you like in an effective manner, and teach people how to also give a nice rejection and how to accept rejection. It’s pretty stupid that no one teaches that in schools, at least not that I’ve ever heard about. I left school with more knowledge on how to apply for a job than how to find love.

    • Seriously. That’s the exact kind of emotional literacy we need more of.

    • You know what else would have been nice, a little education on how to push back firmly but kindly when you’re dating someone who’s unhealthy behaviors start affecting you…..and how to recognize the red flags on the way there.

      • I remember reading Teen Beat or some other similar magazine that had a dating advice column for adolescents like myself (I was 12 at the time)….The first letter was from a girl who said that her BF was calling her names and teasing her and making fun of her clothes or her taste in music or whatever…she was puzzled as to how to interpret his behavior and how to address it…..The advice columnist answered that constant criticism, cruel comments, and nasty “joking” were forms of verbal abuse, which could possibly escalate into other forms of abuse (psychological, physical, etc.)….

        I think I remember taking that advice to heart and ending it with someone at the time….sometimes it’s confusing at that age when someone is acting nice and flirtatious with you one minute and then teasing and making strange, nasty comments the next…

        • How old was the bf? I dunno why but I pictured how little kids tease each other but really like each other, is it possibly that still in existence? Sometimes there is playful teasing, like I’ll give shit to someone about their music in a light hearted manner, but it’s not very serious. If it becomes truly nasty comments, real criticism and not just the silly “your music is awful! :P” then it’s a red flag I think.

      • Agreed

  2. Joe do you think there is a framework to emotions.

    • Yes but I’m not sure I’m the best person to lay it out =)

      Do you?

      My personal philosophy is that humans like to know where we stand. The #1 priority is to be honest with ourselves (and patient, because it changes all the time)…. from that comes healthy interaction with others.

  3. “We didn’t ever talk about emotions…”

    How tragic that this does not occur enough ….I think Health Ed class in JHS focused too much on the biology of sex and CPR techniques and not enough on relations between the sexes (i.e., abuse, bullying, DV, promiscuity, and homosexuality)….I remember a male friend would tell me out of the blue that sometimes he felt “depressed”, which was bewildering to me at the age of 12 (I was rather happy myself and blissfully unaware of his violent and turbulent home life amongst his divorcing parents)….As I look back, I think he was trying to “fix” his home situation by trying to engage me romantically (and show his parents that they needed to stop fighting and find their love for each other)….Unfortunately, he was verbally and physically abusive to me (echoing his parents’ domestic behavior) and turned me off completely….Perhaps if he had been called out on his behavior and able to discuss his inner emotional turmoil over the demise of his parents’ marriage, he would have stopped abusing other girls in his relationships….

    I think a lot of people are emotionally illiterate, but they pretend otherwise….as if it is easier to fake feelings for someone else, rather than to really feel compassion and empathy for someone….

  4. There is a great program here in Vancouver called SafeTeen (http://www.safeteen.ca/) that provides workshops in emotional literacy to pre-teens and teens. Specifically they address things like consent, the “man code”, nonviolence, etc. A good friend of mine has facilitated teen boy workshops there for years; I think it’s too bad that these concepts aren’t covered in the core sex-ed class (which I did actually teach once back in my high school teacher days), but it’s a start.

    • Sounds like a good program, thanks for including a note on that

      Agreed it’s a shame these things are not covered in standard health/sex ed classes. It seems to me there have to be things we all agree can be taught (expressing emotions in a safe, fair way) vs. the more controversial and talked about subjects (teenagers having sex, abortion, etc…). Of course those things are important too, but emotional literacy gives real context to those things too and foster healthy, responsible behavior.

  5. Very Few women are emotionally literate about men’s emotions….I’d suspect most men have a better idea about their SO’s emotional status then most women do. Until we get away from the cultural ideas / stereotypes that men’s emotions are somehow less than a woman’s and that they need to be downplayed if they don’t fit into the culturally approved “MAN” box we’ll continue to see high male suicide rates

    • Women can’t hear what men don’t say.

      I think the heart of the matter is that men generally regularly communicate non-verbally with each other, and women generally regularly communicate with each other verbally with certain verbal cues that men do not register accurately. Any normal woman should at least want to communicate effectively with men who are important to her, but our communication styles are different. In the same way that men need to be told some things very directly and plainly (and repeatedly), we need you to tell us some things verbally, directly, plainly, and repeatedly.

      • As a culture we devalue men that express their emotions that don’t fit within the “MAN” Box. Many women openly question the idea that men are even capable of the full range of human emotion…. Then we blame men for not expressing their emotions in the female approved fashion……choose one, not a impossible to juggle dicotomy.

        • I agree that the Western culture does not allow much space for men’s emotions, but both sexes perpetuate this idea. I agree that it is wrong to do so. You can’t blame only women for that, because both sexes do it. Your statement that hetero men have a better idea of their SO’s emotional state is incorrect. Men often have no idea what is going on, to the same degree that women have no idea.

          You’re also right that men seem to be expected to express emotions the way a woman would. That’s because we don’t pick up on the ways in which men express emotions, not because we want you to be women or to just not have emotions. Women want to see some kind of emotion, and the way we express is the way we understand. When I say men need to explain things, I’m including explanations about how you express emotions. How do you want to express your emotions? When? Why does the situation cause you to have a particular (set of) emotion(s)? Women talk about these things, so we understand each other, but men often don’t so we’re left in the dark. You need to give us a jumping-off point, and remember that you’re starting with things that seem very basic or obvious to you.

          • Just as many women justifably complain about how the male method of the default “right way”but, when it pertains to emotions the female method is seen as the default “right way”. Both ideas are wrong yet only one get accepted as a justifiable grievance. In my opinion men in commited relationships have on average a better idea of their S.O.’s emotional state then their partners do about his…..We may have no more idea as to the how and why part, yet the current state is understood.

      • Depends on the woman, there are women I’ve known that if I say something direct to they will read more into it than is there and leave me confused as hell as to how they thought it.

    • @ Trey I agree with you that we shouldn’t stack one gender’s emotions as more important than the other, but wondering what makes you think men have understand a partner’s emotional status better than women? I don’t think I agree with that. For me, it’s more that the guys I know are actually very thoughtful (more than they get credit for), but they don’t feel safe in talking about emotions because they feel women and the culture generally doesn’t encourage it. Seems to me that’s because of 1-2 decades of education as a boy/young adult where we aren’t often given a forum to build our emotional selves.

      • Men are taught to understand women’s emotional status as Kids by interacting with overwhelmingly female caregivers. Few women ever get that in current society with male caregivers…..and as society strongly enforces emotional gender roles even with exposure to male caregivers


  1. […] And we also have to start having this conversation sooner. There’s something incongruous about furiously declaring that rape is not acceptable while at the same time not having real conversations with young men and women about the boundaries around sex, friendship, intimacy, and emotional intelligence in general. […]

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