The Best (and Worst) Unorthodox Sex Educators, Ranked

Illustrated by Lucy Zuo

Sex education for Catholic school girls is actually pretty simple. Imagine the scene from Mean Girls where the gym teacher warns the class not to have sex or they’ll get pregnant and die. Then add the threat of eternal damnation and 2,000 years worth of shame. Needless to say, trying to navigate my own sex life with no formal education was a rather confusing chapter of my coming-of-age experience, so I have compiled a power ranking of the sources that provided the majority of my sex education. 

6. Theology class: 1/10 — Coming in at dead last is the heteronormative, repressive, anti-choice, and downright laughable practice of having a priest who has sworn himself to celibacy attempt to convince a room full of horny teenagers that burning in hypothetical Hell is a worse fate than waiting until marriage. My high school preached a zero-tolerance abstinence policy that meant skipping the reproductive system in anatomy class and letting the theology department assemble a sex education lesson plan that can be summarized in one word: “don’t.” I would’ve given the Catholic Church a 0/10 for its curriculum on sexual health and wellness, but it did get the school talking, which leads me to…

5. The locker room: 4/10 — Or the back of the bus or the girl’s bathroom during study hall or the slumber party. Basically, anywhere I could listen to other girls talk about everything we didn’t learn in class. This is where I learned some useful things, like how to use a tampon properly. It’s also where I felt a lot of shame because these girls who had been educated in the same abstinence culture as I had (see above) didn’t talk about things like masturbation or female pleasure at all. We could talk about sex, but only as it pertained to our relationships with the men around us and what we thought they wanted from us.

4. WebMD: 5/10 — I would have ranked WebMD higher if it hadn’t convinced me on more than one occasion that a late period plus a headache were sure signs that I was going to have a feature on the next season of 16 & Pregnant. My own hypochondria aside, basically everything I ever learned about STIs and birth control and the less ~sexy~ aspects of my sexual education came from healthcare websites like WebMD, which helped demystify sexual health and wellness for me.

3. The Cosmopolitan “Sex & Relationships” page: 7/10 — I could (and did) spend hours as a 13-year-old engrossed by Cosmo articles, reading it on the family computer and then hastily clearing the search history as if my mom seeing “15 Super Cute Date Ideas” in the history was akin to discovering a stash of erotica under my bed. Once you cut through all the astrology clickbait and filler articles, you find a pretty comprehensive catalog of articles about sex, sexual wellbeing, relationships, and love.

2. Trial and error: 7.5/10 — Experience is (almost) the best teacher. Forcing yourself and your partner to work through the awkward, uncomfortable, confusing, and intimidating parts of sexual intimacy can only serve you both in the future. It also means struggling through some rather embarrassing encounters and combating the shame that inevitably follows. I don’t know if this part of growing up would’ve been slightly less awkward if I had had a more formal sex education, but obviously this list wouldn’t exist if that had been the case. So, try it! Or don’t. But whatever it is, don’t feel shame just because your sex life doesn’t look or feel like a ’90s rom-com.

1. Sex Education, Netflix: 9/10 — I know how much of a cop-out picking a show literally called Sex Education is when talking about the best unorthodox sex education I ever received, but I don’t see any reason to overly complicate things here. This show premiered in January of my junior year of high school and genuinely changed all of my thinking on sex and sex education. The teen soap romance storylines of two teens falling in love and having slow, tender, probably boring sex that I watched on One Tree Hill and Dawson’s Creek were replaced with dialogue about things like consent, proper communication, LGBTQ-specific sex ed, and non-monogamous relationships. Obviously, no television show can replace years of missing sex ed, but this show filled in a lot of gaps for me that weren’t going to be filled otherwise.

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