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There’s More to Sex Ed than Pregnancy & STDs

By , 17, Staff Writer Originally Published: November 21, 2013 Revised: November 21, 2013

As a teen staff writer for Sex, Etc., you’d think that I would be a whiz at anything and everything related to sexuality education. I thought I knew quite a lot, too. I mean, I’d taken sex ed classes at school, and they taught me about condoms and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). But when I was given the chance to review some of the topics that the National Sexuality Education Standards recommends for sex ed, I found out that there was a lot I didn’t know.

Out of a list of 18 items pulled from these standards, there were only seven that I had learned about in school. I went through the list again and thought to myself, Body image? Gender identity? Sex in the media? Just how much information did I miss out on? What didn’t they teach me in school?

National Sex Ed Standards

The National Sexuality Education Standards is essentially a list of what students across the nation are supposed to be learning in their sex ed classes. The standards were developed by sexuality educators and public health professionals because the laws governing what we learn in sex ed varies from state to state, city to city and district to district.

The standards cover seven basic topic areas:

  1. Anatomy and Physiology
  2. Puberty
  3. Identity
  4. Pregnancy and Reproduction
  5. STDs and HIV
  6. Healthy Relationships
  7. Personal Safety

Answer—the publisher of Sex, Etc., Advocates for Youth and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. worked together to create these standards in order to provide “clear, consistent, and straightforward guidance on the essential minimum core content for sexuality education….” Yes, that’s right. Minimum. And I was never even taught half of these topics in school.

So was I the only one left to learn about sexuality on my own? Or are other teens just as uninformed as I once was?

What if sex ed were a place where we felt safe and comfortable talking about issues like gender, sexual orientation, getting clear about what we want, consent and actually talking with a partner about what we do or don’t want to do?

Typical Sex Ed Is Not Enough

There are some things that most high school sex ed classes teach. Of the seven topic areas from the standards, many teens I spoke with had learned something about anatomy and physiology, puberty, pregnancy and reproduction, and STDs and HIV. These topic areas are more clinical and cover the basics of the body and its systems. If you’re lucky, you might also learn how to prevent unplanned pregnancies, how to practice safer sex, and how to prevent the spread of STDs.

Seventeen-year-old Mollie Simon from Atlanta, Georgia, says, “At my school, I learned about HIV, puberty, healthy relationships and bits and pieces of the other categories but did not hit on all of the topics. Abstinence was definitely the major thing taught—nothing about condom use or emergency contraceptives. The most I have discussed those topics in school was actually in my AP language class, where we read lots of articles about controversial topics….”

If teens aren’t learning about sexuality in school, where are they getting their information? Mollie says, “I know that if I wanted any more information I could always look online.” Teens often find the answers to their questions on the Internet or by asking their friends.

Meilan Solly, a 17-year-old from Leesburg, Virginia, says, “The majority of my knowledge about sex comes from TV, books and basically everything besides my sex ed class.”

But wouldn’t it be great if we could get information we can trust from our health classes or teachers?

Molly and Meilan were lucky to have sex ed at all. Seventeen-year-old Bryce C. from Mount Gilead, Ohio, had no sex ed in school.

Bryce says, “I never knew that men should have sex with a condom when they have sex with other men. I figured that since men can’t get pregnant then they don’t have to use a condom. I didn’t know how terrible HIV/AIDS was for the gay community. Nobody ever told me.”

Even if Bryce’s school had offered sex ed, would it have focused solely on heterosexual teens? It’s possible that even with sex ed at school, Bryce, who is a gay teen, still may not have learned what he needed to know about safer sex between men.

It’s important that we learn about pregnancy and how to reduce our risk of getting STDs, but it’s also just as important to learn about sexual orientation, sexual identity and healthy relationships.

Sexuality: It’s Complicated

When it comes to more complicated issues related to sexuality, students are often left to discover things for themselves. Bryce felt alone and isolated without sex ed that he could relate to. Sex ed has to cover much more than pregnancy and STDs, so that teens can have conversations about sexual health and sexuality topics that can be confusing. What if sex ed were a place where we felt safe and comfortable talking about issues like gender, sexual orientation, getting clear about what we want, consent and actually talking with a partner about what we do or don’t want to do?

Identity, relationships and safety can be overlooked in sex ed, but they’re issues that affect how we feel about ourselves, the quality of our relationships and our ability to make healthy choices.

Justina Liu, a 17-year-old from Guilderland, New York, says, “I wish we delved more into the emotional aspects, such as why we feel a certain way and how we should manage these emotions. Also, I am pulled in many directions—by religion, school and family—about what sexual identity is. I think it’s important to talk openly about sexual orientation and homosexuality.”

Sexuality is a very complex subject. We can’t learn about dealing with a homophobic bully in school from a textbook. We can’t learn about how to tell a partner, “I have an STD,” from a textbook. We can’t learn about feeling good in our own skin and appreciating our bodies from a textbook. These are personal topics that require not only teaching the facts but also guidance and support as we figure out how we feel about issues that aren’t simple and don’t have easy answers.

Teens Deserve Better Sex Ed

Accurate sex ed that covers a range of sexuality topics is not a privilege; it’s a right. At the very least, we deserve to be taught the seven topic areas that theNational Sexuality Education Standards recommends. Implementing these standards in every school across the nation is a nearly impossible feat. However, making changes to your school’s sex ed curriculum is well within your reach.

Visit our Action Center to learn what you can do to improve your school’s sex ed curriculum.

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