“My first introduction to porn was in middle school watching the ‘scrambled channel’ to catch the few split seconds when the static morphed into a bare butt thrusting,” explains Tracy Clark-Flory, a journalist covering the sex industry, adding: “Officially, I thought of watching porn less as entertainment than instruction, an investigation into men’s desire more than my own.”

Clark-Flory notes that her experience is “typical” for young women, and her evolving lessons around pornography are powerfully framed as she further examines her earliest lessons:

It goes without saying: as I was growing up, no one had talked to me about the sexual politics of power, performance and perspective. No one – not my parents, not my sex ed classes, not the writers of glossy magazine sex advice – had bothered to go beyond basic mechanics and technique. A true sexual education has less to do with diagrams of the human reproductive system than with understanding another organ: the brain.

My porn life: what my years as a sex writer taught me about my desires

Addressing a controversy around the backstory of an American Girl doll with lesbian aunts, James Finn confronts how children are the “big losers” in the lessons they receive about love, sex, and marriage:

When straight people get married, we tell kids the truth — that the bride and groom love each other and want to spend their lives together. Don’t small children love hearing about that? I sure did when I was a kid.

So here’s the the frightening lesson being taught in this American Girl uproar: Straight people marry for love. Gay people marry for sex, and that’s so disgusting we don’t dare talk about it in front of children.

Parents SHOCKED Over Doll’s Lesbian Aunts

Both of these examples are disturbing because they expose the great failure in the U.S. to offer purposeful and healthy education for children on love and sex, leaving most of the lessons children learn to chance and taking place well outside formal schooling or the purview of parents or other caring adults.

Clark-Flory’s experiences framed as “typical” for girls and young women unmask some of the foundational messages that allow and perpetuate male-centric and misogynistic norms that create hostile and unfulfilling environments for many if not most women. Like Clark-Flory, Finn adds the alienating and harmful lessons about “normal” love, sex, and traditions such as marriage.

Even the recent rise in efforts to address pornography in formal education, “porn literacy,” tends to cause even greater harm, Clark-Flory argues, because “the goal is less to foster a thoughtful, nuanced engagement with porn, but rather to reject the medium as ‘fake.'”

“[M]oralizing around sexual behaviors that many people genuinely enjoy,” Clark-Flory concludes, “is counter to the compelling and undeniable truth offered up by porn: sex can be a great many things.”

In mainstream education and parenting in the U.S., we must admit that most teaching about love and sex is either absent or normative (and harmful).

Next to the examples offered by Clark-Flory and Finn, one of the most powerful and pervasive indirect lessons found in formal schooling become even more disturbing—the lessons taught by dress codes.

From the first days of schooling, children are taught that a great deal of who they are as well as their responsibility for other people’s behavior is linked to their clothing. And those lessons are not only harmful but also deeply gendered; research details that dress codes disproportionately impact girls and young women.

The messaging of dress codes are no different than what Finn notes about popular dolls:

Children hear what their parents are saying about American Girl. Nascent queer kids are being injected with self loathing. Kids who will grow up cis and straight are internalizing values of bullying and stigmatizing.

Why would anyone want to teach shaming and bullying to kids? Women marry one another sometimes; that’s just a fact. Same-sex marriage is legal, ordinary, and no more sexual than any other marriage. Kids can handle that reality even if their family practices a faith that doesn’t endorse same-sex marriage.

Parents SHOCKED Over Doll’s Lesbian Aunts

Similar to the normalizing messaging around American Girl dolls recognized by Finn about love, sex, and marriage, dress codes lay the foundation for slut shaming and victim blaming.

Girls are taught early and often that they are responsible for how boys respond to their clothes and their bodies. But boys are learning these lessons also.

The great and awful irony in this dynamic is that the attitudes and practices considered “normal” (and thus right)—such as honoring marriage as a celebration of love by one man and one woman or the respectability politics of dress codes—alienate and miseducate children in ways that lead to unfulfilling and abusive attitudes about love and sex.

Love and sex are central to being fully human—but not in any singular or correct way. Beneath the problems around consent and sexual abuse/assault are the many harmful lessons children are learning daily in their schools, their homes, and their communities.

Children are not incomplete humans, and avoiding lessons around love and sex as well as miseducating children about love and sex denies their humanity along with perpetuating the likelihood that in their lives love and sex will lead to fear, humiliation, and even abuse.

The problems are not pornography or dolls with lesbian aunts; the problems are the adults, themselves trapped in fear and misinformation.