Catholic sex ed is anything but “universal”

 Content Warning: This article contains reference to sexual violence.

 When I was a freshman at a Catholic high school in Scottsdale, Ariz., I sat down for my second semester of theology class. At this time in my life, I had little to no knowledge about abortion, birth control or even the basics of sex ed. With so many impressionable minds, the theology teachers went to work ingraining victim-blaming and body-shaming into the developing brains of 14-year-olds. 

Within the first weeks of class, my teacher began a tirade on Planned Parenthood’s history, with unfounded claims that it was built solely upon racism with little interpretation for a gray area. She continued throughout the semester to fill our brains with horrific stories of healthy, crying newborns being thrown into trash cans and how fully formed fetuses are cut up after birth. After everyone was thoroughly traumatized by Planned Parenthood’s supposed atrocities, she went to describe her own sex life (or lack thereof). As a 32-year-old woman, she had only ever kissed a man once, an event over which she still felt extreme guilt and expected us to feel the same. For weeks, she went on to explain how queer people are born for celibacy and she would be happy to direct us to her “Gay Best Friend’s” blog that discussed that “lifestyle.” 

As a junior in high school, I sat in my health class as we began our discussions about sex — namely celibacy. From behind me, I overheard a sports team talking about rape. These boys had determined that “rape was a girl’s fault” and that “if women didn’t take actions to protect themselves, they were asking for it.” I turned to them and demanded to know how they would feel if it was their sister who had been raped. A hockey player, louder than all the others, turned to me with a smirk and casually responded, “then she should have been more careful.” 

Their words were scary — even terrifying — only worsened by the complacency of the substitute teacher who allowed the boys to mock me when I told them that they were wrong. 

It is one thing to perpetuate victim-blaming rhetoric, but after this interaction, I heard from multiple girls that those boys had raped them when they were heavily intoxicated. The culture of victim-blaming that exists within religious schools, particularly Catholic schools, is a direct detriment to vulnerable young women. 

The building of this prejudiced culture is constructed. It has not appeared from thin air, but has been constructed over a period of years. According to University of Georgia professors Kathrin F. Stranger-Hall and David Hall, “the US is ranked first among developed nations in rates of both teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” As the government invests more in abstinence-only education, these rates continue to rise. It speaks to a larger systematic issue that sex education is not mandated in twenty-four of fifty states. Sex education is not about promoting promiscuity, but about encouraging conversations about safety. Conversations about consent, STIs, and desire do not equate increased rates of teen sex, but more education has been proven to result in less teen pregnancy and STDs. 

At fourteen, I had every reason to believe these theology teachers who fed me propaganda year after year. After all, they were the adults and I was the child. Throughout my three years of Catholic school indoctrination and two years of reflection, I have come to find my own thoughts and educate myself, but not everyone has that opportunity. Contrary to abstinence-only teaching, conversations foster lower teen pregnancy rates and less sexual violence. When I see former peers, I see the damage it has done manifesting itself in a cycle of abusive relationships and internalized queerphobia. 

As an adult, I wonder: what are the consequences for this generation that grows up surrounded by a culture that continues to give credence to the exclusionary philosophies of their former years? 

From my years at Catholic school, I know that the word Catholic directly translates to “universal.” I pose a question to the Catholic community: what kind of universality exposes so many communities to the vulnerabilities of misinformation? Does it bother you? It should.

 Amber Rush, Viewpoints Editor for the Voice, can be reached for comment at