Illustration of Tess Catlett, a woman with shoulder length blue hair, wearing a black tank top and red flannel, smiling directly aheadShare on Pinterest
Illustration by Brittany England

Last week I had a heating pad stuck to my lower abdomen — during a record-breaking Bay Area heat wave, no less — and a sandwich bag filled with melting ice in my underwear.

As my partner re-entered the room, fresh bag of ice in hand, he said something along the lines of “I don’t really understand how it works, but I can tell that it hurt.”

“It” being the way a new IUD was inserted earlier that morning. My partner took me to and from the appointment, but because of precautions around COVID-19, he was unable to join me inside and witness it for himself. 

I’m not sure if it was the pain medication-induced haze I was in, the lack of sleep I got the night before, or my constant confusion about what day it even is, but my brain immediately snapped into work mode.

Although my partner knew which body parts were involved, he was less clear on where they ~were~ and how, exactly, the IUD made its way up there.

Next thing I know, I’m giving him a rundown of where the uterus is, what my cervical canal looks like (it’s longer than average, apparently), and how this affects the way my previous IUD was removed and replaced.

My partner took it all in stride until I pulled up a diagram — it just didn’t make sense how a T-shaped device could squeeze through such a small space.

So I pulled up an image of a baby crowning during childbirth. We’ve watched countless horror films together, but I’d never seen his eyes go that wide until now.

Needless to say, he’s no longer confused about cervical dilation and contractions.

Although he was lucky enough to receive some form of sex ed during his tenure at a Christian secondary school — they covered the bare bones of menstruation, erections, and oral sex — he didn’t learn the “how’s” or the “why’s” of anything.

And he isn’t alone in that.

Sex ed at school

Many teens in the United States don’t receive any formal sex education, and those that do aren’t necessarily receiving accurate — let alone comprehensive — information.

I spent grades 2–12 at a handful of different schools in Mississippi, and the most I got in the way of “sex ed” was a solitary lesson in 6th grade science class that required a signed permission slip.

The only thing we covered was male and female anatomy — as in, we looked at a generic diagram in our science textbook and that was that.

Although the textbook’s author(s) didn’t annotate any part of the vulva — the teacher didn’t add that information in, either — they noted each part of the penis and scrotum.

Fast forward to 2020, and not much has changed. My 17-year-old sister — we’re 10 years apart — is entering her senior year of high school.

On one hand, she spent a whole week in 8th grade learning about sexual health. That’s an improvement, right?

But the teacher only covered abstinence, how to “identify” chlamydia and gonorrhea (FYI, both are typically asymptomatic), and to avoid drinking at parties or risk being sexually assaulted.

I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than learning nothing at all.

How the gaps are filled

Thankfully, we’ve reached a point in our relationship where my sister feels comfortable enough to talk to me about all the things she doesn’t want to share with a Real Adult.

Although I’m honored to fill that role, I wish she could learn from someone whose credentials include more than adolescent mistakes, late-night Tumblr searches, and a years-long affair with Dr. Google.

She deserves to learn about the changes her body will go through, how she feels and what she desires, and the choices she might face before it’s already happening. We all do.

What we’re doing to change this

As we move through September, Healthline is explaining the in’s and out’s of reproductive and sexual health in honor of Sexual Health Awareness Month.

Scroll down for a taste of what’s to come and keep an eye on our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, where we’ll be highlighting perspectives that your sex ed sources might have missed.

Adrienne Santos-Longhurst kicks things off with a cheat sheet for taking care of your sexual health in its entirety, which includes a roundup of questions so thorough it could pass for a game of Never Have I Ever.

Crystal Raypole gets at the root of what most guides for better sex are lacking: what’s inside of you. No, we don’t mean that — though you may want to grab some tissues, because it’s time to talk about our Feelings.

Next, Crystal shares what it’s like to receive a herpes diagnosis in a world that’s stuck on stigmatizing an incredibly common skin condition and how she’s moving forward.

Gabrielle Kassel gets real about orgasm-focused sex and offers a PSA for the ages: “You don’t need to choose between your sexual health and paying rent, your gym membership, or, heck, even your morning coffee.”

There are plenty of no- and low-cost options for contraception — BTW, we break down the pros and cons of each method here — and STI testing in all 50 states and D.C.

Accessing an abortion can be a bit trickier, but you do have options.

We’ve researched hundreds of locations across the country so that you can get the care you need — whatever that may be — in person or online.

Gabrielle caps things off by revisiting our LGBTQIA Safer Sex Guide, which was originally written by Mere Abrams, LCSW, in conjunction with GLSEN and Advocates for Youth in 2018. New year, new needs, bbs!

Something else on your mind? Our brand new content hub covers everything from pandemic-related relationship woes and sex toy shopping to decoding your dreams, sharing your STI status, and more.

Tess Catlett is a sex and relationships editor at Healthline, covering all things sticky, scary, and sweet. Find her unpacking her inherited trauma and crying over Harry Styles on Twitter.