Sex Ed: Too Little, Too Late
Originally Published: January 8, 2016
Revised: January 8, 2016
“When did you guys have sex ed?” That’s the question that sparked a group conversation during a Sex, Etc. teen staff meeting. There was a really intense discussion about how many sexuality education classes in middle and high school sucked, for lack of a better term. While I sat quietly and listened to everyone’s complaining, I began to feel grateful that my high school had a comprehensive and engaging sexuality education curriculum incorporated into our health class.
I was surprised by my fellow staff writer Elena’s experience in her health class. She explained that each student in her health class was assigned one sexually transmitted disease (STD) and had to create a Power Point presentation on it. Elena had bacterial vaginosis. So guess what she learned about? Bacterial vaginosis. She told us that instead of learning how to prevent and get tested and treated for STDs, each person simply learned about their respectively assigned STD. This got me wondering: What do high schools need to teach us before we graduate?
Standardizing Sex Ed
Sex ed isn’t nationally standardized. This means some states have laws and rules about what should be taught in sex ed, while others don’t. But there are National Sexuality Education Standards created by Answer, the publisher of Sex Etc., along with its partners Advocates for Youth and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. The goal of the National Sexuality Education Standards is to “provide clear, consistent and straightforward guidance on the minimum, core content for sexuality education that is developmentally and age-appropriate for students in grades K-12.” This means the National Sexuality Education Standards spell out what schools should teach us about sexuality and when.
“We did PowerPoints and worksheets in health class, and I feel like I definitely didn’t learn enough from my class.
According to the standards, there are seven major topics that need to be addressed in sexuality education: anatomy and physiology, puberty and adolescent development, identity, pregnancy and reproduction, STDs and HIV, healthy relationships and personal safety. Elementary students learn about basic anatomy, gender roles, familial roles and healthy behavior in friendships. What students learn in each topic area gets more complex as they get older, resulting in a better understanding of sexuality. By the end of 12th grade, students should know about the reproduction cycle; the roles hormones play; the difference between biological sex, sexual orientation and gender identity; the advantages and disadvantages of abstinence and other forms of contraceptive methods; laws relating to sexual and reproductive health care systems; symptoms and treatment of STDs; and characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships. That’s a lot to go over, and it’s unjust that some students are being denied the opportunity to learn these things.
What Are We Actually Getting?
My school, thankfully, had a really comprehensive course in health class. I actually thanked my teacher when I realized that every high school student was not receiving the same information. I learned about all the forms of contraceptives, the different types of STDs, symptoms and treatment for each STD and different types of sexual health care that were available to teens at Planned Parenthood clinics. We had a variety of guest speakers from different organizations, samples of contraceptives, like birth control pills, IUDs and condoms. And almost every type of contraceptive we discussed in class was provided for us to look at firsthand and actually touch. Overall, I had a really great experience with the health classes my high school provided.
Chelsey Beasley, a 17-year-old from Atlanta, GA, shares that she also had great sex ed. Her health class had a guest speaker who talked to them about “safe sex, contraception and even offered free testing for those who were brave enough to take it.”
Chelsey and I got lucky, but some people weren’t as fortunate. High-school senior Fa Mulan, 17, from Garfield, NJ, says, “We did PowerPoints and worksheets in health class, and I feel like I definitely didn’t learn enough from my class. Kids in my school can get 5s on AP exams but don’t know how long Plan B is effective at preventing pregnancy.”
C’Shae Bess Perez, 18, from Jersey City, NJ, tells us that her high school focused mainly on puberty and says, “There was nothing really new that was being taught.” She calls the classes repetitive and says all she did was take notes from a PowerPoint presentation and then take a test.
Jamare Smith, 14, a freshman from Huntsville, AL, says, “Most of the time, we had to read in our science books, but we sometimes watched videos from Discovery in class.” Jamare ultimately says, “I feel I learned nothing from that experience.”
It seems as if health classes focus on absorbing and regurgitating information to pass the class and fulfill a graduation requirement, rather than teaching students what they need to know to make informed decisions about their sexual health.
Chelsey, Fa, C’Shae, Jamare and I have all taken health classes, but what was actually taught varies greatly. This is because schools from different cities and states do not have any enforced guidelines when it comes to sexuality education.
Since every school hasn’t adopted the National Sexuality Education Standards, students within the same grade level across the nation aren’t receiving the same education. Some students get above and beyond what the standards require. Others are just getting the bare minimum or making PowerPoint presentations about things that don’t necessarily help them make healthy decisions, and some get no sex ed at all.
Why Is This Such a Big Deal?
Nora Gelperin, the Director of Sexuality Education and Training at Advocates for Youth, says, “Informing students about sexual health allows them to make healthy decisions based on information, not ignorance.”
Quality sex ed results in a greater understanding of sexual health for young adults, which, in turn, results in smarter sexual decisions. We are about to be adults, and information about sexuality is essential. Undereducated students become undereducated adults.
BuzzFeed collected comments from medical professionals on Reddit and shared them in a blog post titled, “Sixteen Doctors on the Dumbest Patients They Ever Treated.” The list included a woman who didn’t know that having sex would lead to pregnancy, a woman who used her NuvaRing as a bracelet and a couple who decided that since birth control pills were making the girlfriend’s stomach upset, the boyfriend would take them instead.
Who knows if these extreme examples were actually shared by medical professionals, but it’s not unusual for adults to be just as confused as teens about how the body works. If more people had comprehensive sex ed in their health classes as teenagers, they would be more knowledgeable and make more informed decisions when it comes to sex.
What Can We Do?
Truth is there are school administrators and teachers who want to avoid the controversy that comes with pushing for better sexuality education. Principals and other school administrators would need to see a lot of support for comprehensive sexuality education from parents and students to consider adopting the National Sexuality Education Standards. To be an advocate for the National Sexuality Education Standards and to make a difference in the sexuality education your school receives, your best bet would be to start a petition. A petition to adopt the National Sexuality Education Standards signed by students and a large number of adults would probably make your school consider adopting the standards. Having parents on board would mean the school can’t reject the idea completely. I mean, it is your parents’ taxes that are being used to pay the board of ed.
If you’re not ready to start a petition, you can join a current campaign sponsored by Advocates for Youth to encourage Congress to support comprehensive sex ed. Tweet members of Congress with a message about why comprehensive sex ed is needed and use #Vision4SexEd. By drawing attention to the issue in your community and flooding congress with tweets, maybe they’ll recognize that it’s time for change, too.
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