Sex (Re)Education: How Many Partners Is Too Many?

If you took an “abstinence only” sex education class in high school, then it is likely you did some sort of exercise involving a silly metaphor about how having sex with multiple partners makes you “dirty” or “used”.

In high school, I did precisely two of these exercises. Both of which were highly unproductive and misinformed. One of these activities involved a piece of tape that was passed around the classroom and pressed against each person’s skin. By the time the tape had finished making its round so to speak, it wasn’t sticky anymore. Our health teacher took the used piece of tape and tried to stick it onto the board next to a new, clean piece of tape that had just come off the roll. It obviously didn’t stick. The tape was supposed to symbolize our bodies. The used tape was our body, if we had sex with multiple people—dirty, useless, and compromised. The clean tape was our body if we remained “abstinent”—pure, useful, and untainted.

The other exercise that we did was something called “Who’s In Your Bed” which was a story that told the tale of a couple made up of two people, both of which had engaged in premarital sex ONCE prior to getting married. The story suggested that by sleeping with one other person than their fiancée, the two people ended up bringing “countless” people into their marriage bed, because the people they slept with slept with other people, and those people slept with more people and so on and so forth.

“Our bodies aren’t pieces of tape, that get touched and completely disintegrate and lose their value, usefulness, and complete function.”

What’s wrong with these exercises? Well for one, the tape “metaphor” is highly inaccurate, and, to be frank absolute bullsh*t. Our bodies aren’t pieces of tape, that get touched and completely disintegrate and lose their value, usefulness, and functions. When each of us decides to have sex, we aren’t losing any integrity each time we engage in it with a new partner. I think it is important to point out that “educators” don’t use this metaphor to dissuade many other types of touching. No one tells you that if you hug too many people, your hugs will become meaningless and make your body dirty. No one tells you that if you shake too many hands, through the process of making friends, your ability to make meaningful relationships out of the friends you meet, becomes compromised.

Having sex, and touching your genitals to someone else’s genitals, doesn’t either. Although having sex, just like any activity, comes with its risks, the act itself doesn’t make anyone into a “dirty piece of tape”. With the proper precautions, like practicing the safest method of sex possible, regular check ups with your doctor, an regular STI testing, there’s really not a lot that is going to change about your body from one partner to the next. Other than the fact that you’ll start to learn what you like, and be able to vocalize what feels best to you, as you become more comfortable with sexual activity.

“Waiting to have sex until you’re married won’t make you any more “pure” or “clean” at least medically speaking. But, it might make you really uninformed about sex—what you like having done to your body, what methods of protection work best for you, and even the gender of the people you enjoy having sex with.”

And therein lies another harmful impact of these “warning” stories and practices. When adults tell teens and young adults that having sex will destroy them, they are setting up so many people for unsatisfying, possibly unhealthy sex lives. Waiting to have sex until you’re married won’t make you any more “pure” or “clean” at least medically speaking. But, it might make you really uninformed about sex—what you like having done to your body, what methods of protection work best for you, and even the gender of the people you enjoy having sex with.

“Not once in my sex education classes did anyone even mention the possibility that some of us might be gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, or trans. The silence on that issue, and the inability of our narratives to fit into the stock “abstinence only” lessons was truly alienating.”

And therein lies the other problem with these stories. Until last Friday, not everybody in this country was able to “wait until marriage” to start having sex with their partner. These sex education practices aren’t very inclusive of people who won’t be getting married—either because they just don’t see marriage as a part of their future, or because of barriers that are beyond their control. Not once in my sex education classes did anyone even mention the possibility that some of us might be gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, or trans. The silence on that issue, and the inability of our narratives to fit into the stock “abstinence only” lessons was truly alienating.

“Telling students that every person they have had sexual contact with in their life will forever “haunt” their marriage (if they have one) is truly inappropriate when you take into consideration that 1 out of every 6 American women has been a victim of sexual assault in her lifetime.”

One last reason why these metaphors aren’t helpful and are truly ineffective? They don’t take into account the fact that more than likely, someone in the room that day will be, or already has been sexually assaulted. And what kind of message does a story like “Who’s In Your Bed?” send to a sexual assault victim who is trying to overcome their trauma? Telling students that every person they have had sexual contact with in their life will forever “haunt” their marriage (if they have one) is truly inappropriate when you take into consideration that 1 out of every 6 American women has been a victim of sexual assault in her lifetime.

“Maybe a lesson on what consent looks like would have been more appropriate and useful than the silly tape exercise.”

Sex education needs to go beyond shaming students into abstinence and promoting unhealthy views of young people’s bodies. Maybe a lesson on what consent looks like would have been more appropriate and useful than the silly tape exercise. No matter how large or small your “number” is, your body doesn’t function the way a piece of tape does. And your past sexual partners won’t be in your bedroom on your wedding night—if you have one, that is.

Sex (Re)Education is a weekly series in which we debunk myths you learned during sex education back in grade school and high school.

Gimme More Sex + Dating

Do You Like?

Some things are only found on Facebook. Don't miss out.