If you’re anything like me, you spent much of the past two weeks enthralled with the world of Bridgerton, a Gossip Girl-esque show set in 1813 that’s largely centered on the lack of knowledge the female characters have about sex and pregnancy.
It’s worth the binge if you haven’t already seen it. The smolder! The dresses! The jewelry! The parties! The scandals!
And the egregious absence of sex education.
Within hours of the show’s release on Netflix, I started to get text messages from family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues—all fired up and demanding answers to the same questions: “WHY WAS THERE NO SEX TALK?!” “How could they send young women into the world without knowing about their own bodies, reproductive health, or basic anatomy?”
And my ironic favorite: “Thank god things are different now.”
Is it though?
While it’s true that today’s young people have a wealth of information at their fingertips via the internet—and for many of them, conversations about sex, sexual health, and reproduction require far less formal investigation than for the young ladies of Bridgerton—sex education in the United States still varies wildly by state, and even by school.
Far too many young people are given no information—or sometimes even worse, intentionally wrong information—about their sexual health, bodies, and rights. And they find themselves having to make big decisions they otherwise wouldn’t if the adults in their lives trusted them with accurate information upfront.
Today, more than three out of four young people have sex before turning 20, and the period between the first time they have sex and when they get married (if they get married) is over a decade. Because schools often wait until the end of high school to teach sex ed, many young people don’t receive needed sex education before they first have sex.
That is, if they receive any sex education at all. In the United States, only 39 states and D.C. mandate sex education or HIV education in schools. And just 17 states require sex ed content to be “medically accurate.”
Episode six of Bridgerton ignited Twitter in a conversation about consent, power, reproductive coercion, and autonomy. Even today, too few young people in the United States are taught anything about consent, reproductive coercion, and reproductive rights. Only nine states require the importance of consent to be covered in sex ed curricula. And just 24 states and D.C. require sex ed to include information on asserting personal boundaries and refusing unwanted sexual advances. Does this feel inconsistent? That’s because it is.
But there are states adopting comprehensive sex ed policies and working to ensure that students are receiving accurate, complete, and accessible information. In the past three years, Colorado, Illinois, and Maryland approved broadening their approach to sex education, and Washington state doubled down on a comprehensive sex education law with a statewide vote in its favor in November 2020.
These conversations matter. And yet we have lawmakers actively blocking inclusion of such nuanced, critical, and necessary subjects in our sex ed curricula.
Like our heroine Daphne, too many young people today don’t receive the information they need from their parents either. While parents may have a heart-to-heart with their kids sooner than the wedding night, these family conversations can still be too little, too late. The belief that a single parent-child conversation meets a young person’s needs has been disproven again and again—there need to be ongoing, honest conversations. (By the way, I had to explain the Duke’s pull-out method as a contraceptive strategy to my mom, so learning can happen in both directions!)
While—obviously—much has changed since 1813 (including the ability to binge-watch a TV series in our pajamas and text everyone we’ve ever met about Lady Whistledown), the bottom line is that many young people are still denied accurate information about their own bodies.
And as in (almost every) plotline in Bridgerton, the lack of information means that too many young people have to piece together knowledge that affects their own lives—often too late, and without the support they want and need.
Whether it’s wanting to get pregnant like Daphne, avoid pregnancy like the Duke, end a pregnancy like Miss Thompson, or just make sense of pregnancy like Eloise and Penelope, each character’s life in Bridgerton is unnecessarily complicated by the hush-hush, stigma-laced standard of 19th-century sex education.
We can do it. We’ve traded in our horses and carriages. It’s time to trade in our bad sex education models and give young people the respect and information they need and deserve to take care of themselves, their bodies, and their relationships. Ignorance is not bliss in the fictional world of Bridgerton—or in the world young people live in right now.