Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

Dating Lessons I Wish I’d Learned in Sex Ed

If only middle school offered ‘romance-ed’, too

I’m a real “act-before-I-think” kind of guy — which is a cool-sounding concept, until you’re left stewing in your own comeuppance soup like a giant dopey crouton. Among my dopiest, most soupy moments are a particularly high number involving romance and sex. I’ve never been one to jump into bed with a person without a condom or rob a liquor store to impress a girl, but my mistakes have caused me plenty of embarrassment and sorrow regardless.

Every time I start thinking about this, I end up ruminating over middle school, the worst place for a person’s formative years to happen. While serious anxiety kept me absent from a large portion of school functions, I suspect it was my school system’s sex-ed program that ultimately led to some rocky decisions concerning women.

Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t grow up in a red state, where abstinence-only education somehow continues to be a thing. In fact, I applaud my school for its openness toward sex; I just wish I’d been taught how difficult relationships could be. While sex ed taught us about how different real-life sex was from the pornos we spent all day downloading on Kazaa, it was the total absence of relationship ed that led me to believe dating must be exactly how it looked on Saved by the Bell or Frasier.

As a result, I ended up making the same mistakes over and over, leading me to ask: Why didn’t they teach us about some of the more complex aspects of dating in school? Here are some lessons I wish I had learned during the years of my life I could have used the most.

There is gray space between non-marriage and marriage

There were too many extremes taught to us in school. You’re clean or you’re riddled with disease; you’re a virgin or a slut; you’re married to your soul mate or will die of loneliness.

What I wish my educators could have taught me was that there are multiple ones out there; for every relationship you lose, another one is waiting around the corner. This lack of knowledge kept me in some bad relationships for far too long. I remember my first serious girlfriend, who I thought was perfect for me — which, looking back, was reinforced by her constantly telling me how perfect she was for me. Her fun, wild and carefree personality was nothing more than a facade, which took me a long to figure out. Through the fighting, cheating and boring car trips she’d make me go on — where she’d ask me to turn off the GPS so we could “get lost” together — I tried my damnedest to make it work. I figured that there would never be another person who I’d feel this strongly about, so why not put in the effort?

Eventually, the fights, infidelities and trips to the gas station won out, and I ended it with her. Not to give too much away, but I’ve felt just as strongly about the women I’ve dated since as I did with her.

Don’t feel guilty about sex

I’m not sure that we as a country will ever reach a point where sex is talked about in a straightforward manner. I don’t think children will ever be told that sex is something everyone should experience, nor will any instructor ever encourage their pupils to go out and fuck their brains out.

Boy, did it take me a while before I realized that I wouldn’t end up diseased and hospital-bound by having sex with multiple partners. They did a great job telling us about the horrors of not using condoms (babies! HIV!) but I was blind to the thrills of things like 69 and anal for quite a long time. It wasn’t until I was broken up with by a long-term girlfriend that I decided to get on a dating app and throw myself at everyone who gave me the time of day. So here I am now, scores of partners behind me, STI-free and completely without regret.

Don’t disappear on your friends

I’m almost 30 and now engaged, so it’s an appropriate time to make my future wife my first priority—after all, we’re getting joint bank accounts and talking about creating a human together. It’s reasonable to put her first, but what isn’t reasonable is telling your friends you can’t make it to the D&D match, because you’re too busy cuddling. (Just kidding — I never played Dungeons & Dragons.)

I don’t support the “bros before hos” argument. It’s sexist to call your significant other a “ho” and obnoxious to label a guy a “bro.” However, as you get older, you start to learn how hard it is to make friends and how empty Saturday nights can be when you’re single. For what it’s worth, my friends have forgiven me for flaking and I’ve learned how to juggle my partner and the people who won’t yell at me for eating chicken wings too quickly.

Don’t date your friend’s ex.

Funny, right? All right, not like “laugh out loud” funny, but sort of humorous nonetheless. I dated two of my best friend’s ex-girlfriends in a five-year period. Why, you ask? Great question and I don’t know. I think it’s because they liked me and my self-esteem at an early age led me to believe I’d never find someone on my own. I had the perfect icebreaker: We know the same guy!

One relationship ended terribly and the other woman I’m still close with to this day, but I still regret putting our friendship at risk. If only I had been taught that this social taboo exists for a reason and everything your friend doesn’t say to your face is being repeated in an angry voice in his head during his morning shower. I wish I had known how much tension this choice causes and that— no matter how many times he said it’s okay — it was never really okay.

Don’t lose your personality to someone else’s

You can’t teach someone a lesson like this, which I assume is why I was never taught it. There are too many women and men out there who absorb their partner’s personality and make it their own, à la Kirby from Super Smash Bros. You can’t just tell someone to have faith in their own personalities and assure them that they’ll grow… but they will. Just be aware that it’s only the cruddy people out there who’ll fully expect you to take interest in their dumb hobbies when they know you’re not into watching hot women eat Ramen on Twitch.

Don’t sweat heartbreak

Take solace in the fact that there are thousands of people out there who could and potentially will break your heart. While we all know that nothing feels worse than mourning the love of a teenage relationship gone awry, we also know that there are plenty of fish in the sea. And here’s the thing about all those fish: They’re nicer, sweeter, cooler and have way better taste in music than that one fish who sucked the life out of you for six months and ended up leaving you stranded on the bottom of the ocean floor during sea-prom. Don’t ignore the awful feeling, because that kind of pain makes you human — just know that things will get better, worse, and then better again. Yay, love; great.