This story was originally published in early May in “Paradise,” the sixth issue of Talisman magazine.

Mom sits you down for a “special talk,” and your heart begins to race. Or the entire sixth grade class gets called down to the gym to watch a video you can’t stop giggling through. Or you’re quietly flipping through a book on the human body, and a certain diagram catches your eye. Most of us remember how we first found out about sex. But learning about anything as complicated as sex takes place over time and in many different ways.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 37 states require that if sex education is taught, abstinence must be included in the curriculum, while 13 states require that sex education be medically accurate. Kentucky requires sex and HIV education but does not require that sex education be medically accurate. A study published by the Public Library of Science in 2011 found an increased focus on abstinence education is associated with higher rates of teenage pregnancy.

In light of the often fraught nature of sex education and how it varies from state to state, the Talisman wanted to know: How did WKU students learn about sex? Their interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Carder Venable, Portland, Tenn., sophomore

I guess I formally learned about it in school. I think I was in seventh or eighth grade. This, like, outside guy came in to explain it to us, the crisis pregnancy center guy. He did teach us about condoms, but most of the talk was trying to scare us from sex, showing us pictures of people with STDs and making it seem like if you did have sex you would for sure get one. In church, they had this program called “True Love Waits,” where they sat all the teens down without our parents around and taught us abstinence. I don’t think I’ve talked about it with my parents to this day.

Paige McCloyn, Hendersonville, Tenn., senior

I was never actually talked to about it, and even in school, I remember I had a teen living class, but we didn’t talk about it. The first thing I remember talking about that had anything to do with sex was sexually transmitted diseases in sixth grade in my PE class. They showed a bunch of pictures of people that had sexually transmitted diseases, and they were like, “Don’t do it!” But nobody actually talked about it. I think if I was taught about it in a different context, in church or even by my parents, they would have pushed me to wait until marriage, but I think that since I learned about it along the way, I thought of it as more of an act rather than a big deal. Just part of life.

Paige McCloyn, a sophomore from Hendersonville, Tenn., was never explicitly taught about sex. “I guess I kind of just figured it out along the way,” she said.

Rachel Fallahay, Louisville, senior

I know I learned about it in school, but I don’t think that’s when I actually found out about it. Do you ever have those things where you don’t remember how you learned it, but you just remember knowing what it is? We didn’t have sex education until I was in like fifth grade. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, so the person that taught it for me was a nun. I think everyone just kind of felt uncomfortable, like how you laugh when anybody says some type of sexual word. People, even adults, just giggle instead of having a serious conversation. If I have kids, and they come up to me and ask something, I’ll figure out how to explain it then. I’m not going to straight-up lie to them, but I’ll probably just say something stupid and silly to get them to stop talking, and when they’re at an appropriate age, then I’ll talk to them.

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Dylan Calvo, Hendersonville, Tenn., junior

I was watching a movie one day when I was like six years old. I think it was about a girl and a guy stranded on an island, and once they hit puberty, they started having sex. Out of the blue, my mom was like “OK, this is what happens.” She explained puberty to me and what they were doing. I don’t remember ever learning about it in school, and I don’t think I would have paid attention. Everyone seemed to know about it already. I think that I’d give my future children the talk. I guess the school could give it, because some people probably don’t get it from their parents, so that would be good for them.

Some students can’t recall ever receiving sex education in school. Dylan Calvo, a junior from Hendersonville, Tenn., said that he learned about sex from a movie he watched with his mom.

Karla Perez, Clarksville, Tenn., senior

It was my dad. I was in middle school, and I was getting into the “Oh, I like boys” phase. My dad was like “OK. Sex.” And we had the talk. My dad basically just told me, “Don’t do it at all.” My reaction was “Oh, OK, I’m not doing that,” because I didn’t like how I looked at the time. In high school, I learned about sex by myself. Everyone is in your ear telling you something different. I think some people fluffed it up too much, making it seem like a life-changing and magical experience when really it isn’t. And then some others gave advice like “if you do it this way it will be really painful.” There are no facts when it comes to sex — it’s just your personal experience.

Karla Perez, a freshman from Clarksville, Tenn., said she remembers her dad basically just telling her “not to (have sex) at all.” Perez wishes she hadn’t had to figure out what sex was all on her own, because everything that she heard was inconsistent.

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