“We’re sex writers, we got this on lock,” we thought, cracking our knuckles as we settled down to take a middle school sex ed final exam. Two, in fact.
As writers for a site that takes great joy in learning sex facts, publishing literary erotica and confessional personal essays, we thought it would be an interesting experiment to see how well talking about sex all the time translates to actual knowledge about it. As a man and woman from North Carolina and Massachusetts, respectively, there was also a boys vs. girls and North vs. South aspect to the challenge. We took both a high school and middle school level exam to mix things up. Here are the (somewhat pathetic, somewhat hilarious) results.
As I took this exam, all I could hear over my shoulder were the plaintive cries of “What the fuck?” coming from Michael. He was having a hard time. It made me nervous. I’m someone that needs to prepare for things. Like, double-check the condoms for pinholes prepare. We had an absolutely-no-studying pact before the exams. But I am a Massachusetts lady who went to a school where the boys and girls were split into classrooms and taught about condoms, periods, and burning chlamydia. I was confident that, hey, I’d do okay. I know about sex! My nondescript lesbian health teacher practically taught an entire unit on warts.
I was zooming through the test. One question that really threw me off was about the life span of viruses. “Like, STDs or regular common colds? I know you have herpes and HPV for life…” I thought. I think?
That’s the thing about these tests, they’re filled with so many backwards questions and tricky scaremongering phrasings that try to convince even the most liberal of students to keep their junk in their pants. “The only safe way to have sex is NOT to have it,” read one annoying question. “Can you only get pregnant when two people are in love?” Nope. “A girl going through puberty should wash her face HOW MANY TIMES a day?” What the fuck, is that relevant? I think it’s a testament to pure luck, my memory, and the amount I pay attention at the gynecologist that I got a perfect score on both exams: 100%. Consistent, I guess.
Michael looked a little forlorn as we corrected the high school test. “But I’ve been having to read the fine print on birth control packs for years,” I assured him. But let’s also face it, I am kind of a nerd.
Ok. I’m terrible at tests and generally hated school, so this did not go well for me. I was dignosed ADHD back then and took all my tests un-timed jacked on Adderall. And I did take way longer than Kate on both tests. As with all exams I felt this was tricky(!) and did not really test my knowledge, but rather my skills at test taking. Questions on the True or False were both false and on the multiple choice portion, the “all of these EXCEPT” questions are designed to throw you off.
My sex ed class growing up in North Carolina was was taught by my gym teacher (a fat white man named, no lie, Jesse Jackson) and he mostly told us to wait until marriage to have sex or else we would catch AIDS and get girls pregnant. Much of what I learned about STDs was from a booklet they passed out after class. My memories of sex ed are full of anxiety and confusion. Jesse Jackson scared the shit out of us, which added even more to why I did not enjoy taking this test.
The female biological and anatomy stuff I really don’t remember learning, though I’m sure they taught it to us but I was likely looking out the window daydreaming that day. The other place I learned/didn’t learn about sex was from church, which again just scared us into thinking that we would get any girl pregnant that we touched and would get loads of STDs and go to hell if we didn’t wait till marriage.
Lame excuses aside, as a fairly educated adult I am shamed by my below average scores: 73 and 74. I’m glad I took the tests though. I now know that women can have wet dreams.
There are a few main conclusions we can draw from our highly scientific experiment. One is that Michael isn’t exactly test-friendly while Kate is. Another is what we like to call the Mason/Dixon Problem. Michael came of age in North Carolina, where abstinence-only education was still in practice and where today students are stressed to wait until marriage. There was some talk of condoms, but it was brushed over. Kate went to a public school in Massachusetts where age-appropriate, medically-factual comprehensive sexual education was on the books. Free condoms were handed out.
But there was something else at play here and it might have a lot more to do with gender than we could have ever predicted. We realized that in the day-to-day, women are confronted with and must attend to their own sexual health much more than men. Most of the questions Michael had trouble with had to do with women’s bodies. (He didn’t identify fallopian tubes, ova, or the hormones in birth control correctly. I’m really sorry, Michael.) Women get their periods, have annual pelvic exams, and often have to take birth control that requires a certain amount of sex ed to master. It makes sense that a woman would know more about kinda boring sex facts.
So does being a sex writer mean you know more about sex? Well, sure. But only when you skip over the parts about fallopian tubes.