I never had proper sex ed. There was some reference to genitalia in my eighth grade health class: Our teacher brandished rubber devices that showed, in 3-D, where children grew inside women’s bellies and how liquids were transported from the inside to the outside of a man. But the creepy crash-test-dummy-pink models hardly addressed what we really needed to know, like how to ask partners about their health status or how to put on—and take off—a condom. I left the classroom more confused than I had entered it. I wonder if that wasn’t the idea—to scare us off sex altogether. Those frightening rubbery forms were as effective a form of birth control as a screaming baby.

I had perfunctory conversations with my mom and dad years after I first needed to know the ins and outs of my body and how to protect it. I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t a virgin; they didn’t want to hear it. As for my younger sister, I tried to be a role model and discourage her from having sex for as long as possible. Which meant that the first real conversation we had about it was after her child was born. And my friends? Our conversations have always lacked sufficient specifics to be of any help. It’s always “Did you or didn’t you?” and never “How did you and were you safe?”

In America, for all our obsession with lascivious, prurient pleasures, we are terrified to talk frankly and specifically about sex. It is not a topic of polite conversation, and if you ask people even basic questions, they squirm and sidestep. We let ourselves and our kids watch—on TV and the Internet—people having all sorts of sex, but we can’t seem to talk about having safer sex. Why are we in denial?

I admit that it makes me a little uncomfortable to think of a 12- or 13-year-old having sex, as nearly 10% of that age group does. But if they’re going to do it, shouldn’t  we teach them how to do it without lifelong or life-threatening consequences? I’m not against abstinence; it’s a great form of birth control and disease prevention—if you can keep people from having sex. But apparently, we can’t. In fact, the less we talk about sex directly and the more we pretend that we don’t have it, the more we elevate what is otherwise a simple fact of life into a forbidden fruit that hangs so heavy and juicy on the tree that no one can resist trying it.

I had what many would consider a really good education. Yet when I graduated from college, I couldn’t cook, change a tire or keep myself from contracting a sexual disease that might kill me. I am astounded that as HIV infection rates continue to rise among teenagers, our educational system, our government and our families continue to let our kids learn lessons the hard way. It’s obvious that abstinence-only sex ed isn’t working and that we desperately need to talk to America’s youth openly and truthfully about an epidemic they know little about. I’m not into scare tactics, but today’s kids are not afraid enough of HIV—too many of them perceive it as a manageable chronic illness that can be combated with a couple of pills a day. Maybe we’ve done too good a job educating them about how HIV can be treated and not a good enough job educating them about the difficulties of living with HIV. Maybe it’s time to bust out those rubber forms again—and have a little talk.