Physical Health

11 Things I Wish I Learned in Sex Ed (but Didn’t)

written by KILLIAN LOPEZ
Source: @shopcosabella
Source: @shopcosabella

When I think back to 7th-grade sex ed, I recall a series of three VHS videos that are burned into my memory: a graphic depiction of a baby crowning during birth, an instructional video about how to use a condom, and a sketch involving a student who drops a massive box of tampons at school and a teenage boy who steps in to help (and who, BTW, is entirely unphased by the sheer number of feminine products in her possession). These were the takeaways of the lessons I learned: birth is wild, protection is non-negotiable, and menstruation is normal. (Of course, that last one only the female students learned while the males were shuffled into another room to learn about wet dreams and such.) 

As I advanced into adulthood, I remember coming across various scenarios that prompted the thought, “Huh, that would’ve been nice to learn in sex ed.” And I know I’m not alone. So I decided to team up with Ariele Myers, a fertility specialist, board-certified herbalist, licensed acupuncturist, and Founder of The Whole Woman Collective, to devise the top things I wish I’d learned about the female body in sex ed. Ahead, 11 lessons about sex I wish I learned, but didn’t. 


Meet the expert
Ariele Myers
Myers founded Arieles Apothecary, where she worked with some of the top Reproductive Endocrinologists and IVF centers in the country to help hundreds of women on their hormonal health and fertility journeys. In 2016, she founded Wisdom of the Womb, an online platform to educate on all things reproductive health.


1. It’s not that easy to get pregnant

In a very informal poll I took of all my friends, this was the number one issue that we felt our sex ed classes misled us on. I get that it’s tough to explain nuance to a bunch of 7th graders. But if you’re under the impression that you can get pregnant any day of the month, you’re in for a surprise if and when you decide to try to get pregnant. According to Myers, a woman’s “fertile window” is about 6 days long. The math here is that women ovulate for about 12-48 hours. And “While our egg is only viable for a short time, sperm can live for 5 days. So we can actually become pregnant by having sex before we ovulate,” Myers explained. 

If you’re trying to avoid pregnancy, Myers suggested backtracking 5-6 days from the day you ovulate and either avoiding vaginal sex or using contraception until about 48 hours after ovulation to be safe. Basically, avoid unprotected sex for a week. “Where some women go wrong in trying to avoid pregnancy is that they wait until they’re ovulating to abstain from penetrative vaginal intercourse,” Myers added. “If there is sperm in your body at the time you ovulate, you can get pregnant.” Another disclaimer: This can be a helpful timeframe if you have a regular cycle. So if you have an irregular cycle (and even if you don’t), chat with your doctor about a plan that works best for you. 


2. Tracking your ovulation is a great way to get to know yourself

If you’ve never tried tracking your ovulation, I highly encourage you to. Not only does it empower you to know when pregnancy is possible (whether you’re trying to achieve or avoid it), but it’s also an indicator of good health. There are a few ways to track your ovulation. And Myers’s favorite is by tracking your Basal Body Temperature (BBT). “BBT charting tells us so much about our reproductive health. Like our follicular and luteal health as well as how we ovulate, not just if and when we ovulate,” Myers said. 

If you’re into cycle syncing, BBT is an excellent way to gauge which phase of your cycle you’re entering. Myers offers a free YouTube tutorial on tracking BBT if you’re wondering how to start. Alternatively, you could buy an Ovulation Predictor Kit (OPK) at any major store that sells pregnancy tests. “OPK testing is simple, pee-on-a-stick easy, but can get expensive if you’re using them monthly,” Myers stated. These tests can also misread whether you’re actually ovulating as they often only track LH (luteinizing hormone) spikes, which occur just before ovulation, and not the progesterone that kicks in after ovulation.

Lastly, you can keep an eye on ovulation by tracking your cervical mucus, which Myers referred to as helpful, but also takes some figuring out. “Around the time you ovulate, the consistency of fertile cervical mucus [will be] similar to that of raw egg whites,” Myers said. “Ever try to get a little piece of shell out of the egg white? It’s nearly impossible!” This “raw egg white” consistency usually appears within four days of ovulation.


3. Period pain is not normal

I was shocked to discover well into my mid-20s that severe cramping alongside my period—though common—wasn’t actually “normal.” Rather, it was a sign that my hormones were out of whack. “Within the framework of Eastern Medicine, pain before and during our cycle can indicate a stagnation of Qi and Blood or blockage in our reproductive organs,” Myers said. “This can inhibit blood flow, which can contribute to pain and cramping.”

I can personally speak to the power of acupuncture (and herbal tea!) for hormonal health (after going down that road, I rarely cramp when I menstruate). “Some profoundly impactful ways to reduce your menstrual pain at home are Moxibustion and womb massage,” Myers added. 


4. The birth control pill is not a cure-all for all menstrual issues

Birth control can be an effective tool for contraception. But it’s often used to treat a myriad of menstruation issues. And like all medications, it carries risks along with benefits. “While I believe that the hormonal contraceptive was one of the best things to happen for women’s reproductive freedom, anything we put into the body has to be processed by our body—by our liver—and this does impact our overall health,” Myers said. “Birth control pills are a powerful method of preventing pregnancy, especially when a woman isn’t available or open to tracking her cycle.” But if you’re looking to improve the health of your hormones or your cycle, options outside of birth control might provide a better long-term solution.


5. Orgasms are good for you

I honestly can’t remember if orgasms were discussed in sex ed, but I know we didn’t talk about their health benefits (spoiler: there are a lot of benefits!). “During orgasm, women release endorphins, ‘feel good’ hormones like oxytocin and dopamine, and prolactin,” Myers explained. Not only do these chemicals counteract stress, but they can also relieve anxiety. Pleasure can actually be healing if we are intentional about how we access it. Imagine if your sex ed class encouraged you to explore what made you feel good. 

“Only 31-40% of women say that they reach orgasm during penetrative intercourse. And many women say they feel ashamed or embarrassed that they don’t orgasm,” Myers pointed out. “I want there to be so much more support for people to have the time and space to learn what their body likes and wants. Emily Nagoski’s book Come As You Are is an amazing resource for all bodies wanting to understand and discover their capacity for desire.”


6. Post-sex care is important

Do you know when I learned it was important to pee after sex to avoid a urinary tract infection (UTI)? After getting my first UTI. Though it may feel like hearsay, it’s not a myth: “Peeing after sex is important as it helps you flush bacteria that could potentially cause UTIs out of the urethra,” Myers said. “The belief that it can ward off pregnancy, however, is not factual as the urethra is separate from the vagina.” Emotional post-sex care is important too, Myers pointed out. “Some people need and want cuddles or talking after sex. Some need a nap, and some are fine to just get up and go,” she said. She encourages leaning into what you want and need—and practicing asking for it.


7. Intimacy and sex are different

Though this isn’t strictly related to physical health, it’s important for anyone engaged in sexual activity to know how to differentiate the physical act of sex from the emotional bond of intimacy. “It feels important to remember that sex is sex and love is love,” Myers said. When both parties aren’t aligned on exactly how they’re using sex, people can get hurt. “It’s OK to have sex without intimacy and connection if that’s what you choose,” Myers noted. “But when you have sex as a means to increase connection,” especially when the other person isn’t on the same page, “it often doesn’t work and can leave us feeling vulnerable.” Wouldn’t it have been great if sex ed helped us navigate these nuances from the start?


8. Consent is an enthusiastic “yes,” and “no” is a complete sentence

Consent is critical for obvious reasons. But I wish the nuances of consent had been discussed and taught more clearly in sex ed. Myers explained that so many women tell her they don’t feel entitled to their “no.” Other times, they worry about the other person feeling rejected. “‘No’ is a complete sentence,” Myers said. “Even if you like someone, even if you want to continue feeling connected, you never owe anyone your body. Sexuality is not a performance. I believe this should be the foundation of sexual education: that we get to feel, explore, and honor our feelings of desire as well as lack of desire.”

In the same vein, if you have been told “no,” know that it is not a reflection of your worth (another thing I wish they told us in sex ed). There are so many reasons a person might not be interested in sex that have nothing to do with who you are. 


9. What you’re calling a “vagina” is probably a “vulva” (and they all look different!)

Screaming “penis” and “vagina” at the top of our lungs to normalize the words—another sex ed lesson burned into my brain (anyone else?): “A” for effort, but it reduced our understanding of the anatomy to two terms. I’m pretty sure I thought my vulva was called a vagina well into my 20s. And most men I know still don’t know the difference.

Let’s settle any confusion now: The vulva is the area outside a woman’s genitals. Within the vulva, you’ll find a clitoris (the pleasure center), labia majora and minora (the outer and inner lips), a urethra (where urine travels), and the vaginal opening. The vagina is actually inside the body. It’s the inner canal that leads toward the uterus. The beautiful thing about vulvas is that no two are identical, much like fingerprints. It can be maddening when younger women worry about whether their vulva looks “normal,” because there’s no real “normal” to compare it to. Again, that’s something that would have been really helpful to learn in sex ed.


10. Non-sexual infections happen and are nothing to be ashamed of

There’s a lot of talk about sexually transmitted diseases in sex ed. But not a whole lot of discussion about the fairly common non-sexual infections that can crop up—yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. “It is best to go to a doctor to check on any excessive itching or unusual discharge,” Myers suggested. But it’s not necessary to get overly concerned right away. These types of infections can occur as a side effect of antibiotics, birth control, hormone imbalance, or diet. “Our digestion can change the pH in our vagina, which can become a breeding ground for infections, like Candida overgrowth,” Myers said. Talk to your doctor if you experience any changes, and practice proper hygiene. 


11. Sex is not just heterosexual (because duh)

This one really goes without saying, but we’re saying it anyway. It’s hard enough navigating being a woman in a heteronormative society, considering the fact that women were forced to rely on a man for survival throughout most of history. “This framework only shifted as recently as the 1970s when women could open their own bank account and even be considered for certain professions—but our value as women is still strongly steeped within that historical context,” Myers shared.  

For folks who identify outside the bounds of heteronormative culture, who have faced even more invisibility and had to fight for any real contextualization of value at all, navigating sexual intimacy is even hazier. Queer relationships need to be visible, normalized, and valued so that the folks who reside within them can feel visible, normal, and valued. And sexual education needs to cover these kinds of relationships so that all students are offered the health and safety information they deserve.