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Feminspire | April 19, 2014

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Let’s Talk About Sex in School (Baby)

Let’s Talk About Sex in School (Baby)

It seems it’s easier for secondary school teachers to instruct lessons about the Holocaust, calculus and conjugating Spanish verbs than about how to safely have sex.

Wave after wave of feminists have advocated for a revamping of sex education in schools, or the addition of sex education into core curriculum where it is sorely missed. With no national regulation to direct the information students receive about sex, contraception, relationships and sexually-transmitted diseases, short lessons squeezed into “health” class, or no lessons at all are a norm in the 21st century.

And where there is sex education, “education” is a word used lightly. A September 2012 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that 35 percent of the school districts studied used inaccurate and biased information to teach students about intercourse and reproduction.

In one pamphlet, sexual intercourse was defined as “the reproductive process in which the penis is inserted into the vagina and through which a new human life may begin.” This definition leaves no room to discuss birth control methods to prevent said human life, overlooks oral and anal intercourse, and ignores homosexual intercourse altogether.

Is this education better than no education at all? New York is one of 30 states with no policy mandating sex education, as determined by the Guttmacher Institute in February 2012. The Guttmacher Institute is an independent nonprofit policy research institute that works to provide sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States and worldwide through research that undergoes blinded peer review.

Twenty states require sex and HIV education, but only 13 states require sex education classes to teach medically accurate and factual information.

That means Coach Carr’s speech in Mean Girls isn’t just comedy. It might be the only information young adults are receiving about sex:

“Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die. Don’t have sex in the missionary position, don’t have sex standing up, just don’t do it, OK, promise? OK, now everybody take some rubbers. ”

Let’s break down his speech in regard to statistics on actual methods of sex education: In 2006, 87 percent of public schools taught abstinence as the most effective method to prevent pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which is correct, though exclusive. By blurring religious obligations to stay “pure” before marriage and the biological truth that the only way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to refrain from all sexual activity, students aren’t provided enough knowledge to make safe sexual decisions.

In these abstinence-only programs, students are often made to sign a “virginity pledge,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Recent celebrity influence have brought purity rings into the spotlight, with everyone from teen pop sensation the Jonas Brothers, to athletic icon Tim Tebow sporting the bands. “True Love Waits,” Bible verses, and even rings for married parents to wear to remind their children of their abstinence expectations are sold through companies such as Silver Ring Thing. Between former President Bush and then-Pennsylvania governor Rick Santorum providing federal grants to abstinence-promoting organizations, it would make sense that rates of pre-marital sex and STD transmission would decrease.

Instead, a Columbia University study found 88 percent of virginity pledges had sex before marriage, and were less likely to use contraception and seek STD testing when they did have sex. These students may not have contracted Chlamydia and died, but one in four sexually active teens across the country contracts an STI each year; twenty percent of new HIV infections in 2009 were 13 to 24-year-olds; and half of teen mothers never receive a high school diploma. These numbers don’t speak to the need of sexual education – they SCREAM for it.

A 2004 study through the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform titled “The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs” found that under the Bush administration, increase in funding for “abstinence-only” education as opposed to comprehensive sex education led to 80 percent of programs spreading “false, misleading or distorted information about reproductive health.”

How incorrect was this information? One program taught students “In heterosexual sex, condoms fail to prevent HIV approximately 31 percent of the time.” Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization enforce the proper use of condoms as a potentially “life saving” method to reduce the risk of contracting HIV.

Language used to describe pregnancy leans heavily on pro-life beliefs and religious morality, which could start a guilt complex in young women at risk of becoming pregnant if not accurately educated. Another program teaches, “fertilization (or conception) occurs when one of the father’s sperm unites with the mother’s ovum (egg).  At this instant a new human life is formed.”

Conception, as defined by the American Pregnancy Association, typically occurs 11-21 days after a woman’s first missed period. This is the “basis” for human life, which, depending on one’s stance on abortion, means that the potential of human life is possible, should a woman wish to carry through with a pregnancy.

An instructor-created lesson in the New York study further perpetuates an anti-abortion bias: “Even before someone realizes it, they are pregnant! A test does NOT show a positive before six weeks, and by then the baby has already reached important milestones.”

The National Abortion Federation states that 88 percent of women who receive abortions are less than 13 weeks pregnant, and teenagers receive one-third of these abortions. The National Institute of Health defines this stage of pregnancy as the gestational age, or the first trimester of pregnancy.

Sex ed on the topic of abortion isn’t limited to a middle or high school classroom. As of September 2012, the Guttmacher Institute reported that nearly all states require women seeking abortion be counseled on fetal development; 11 states include information on the ability of a fetus to feel pain; and 18 states include accurate information on the potential effect of abortion on future fertility, though in five states, the written materials inaccurately portray this risk: for example, asserting a link between abortion and increased risk of breast cancer.

What about students engaging in sexual activities with no risk of pregnancy: the homosexual high school population? When lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students aren’t ignored entirely (55 percent of New York school districts in the NYCLU study did not provide any instruction on sexual orientation), same-sex intercourse is often presented in a negative light. Gay individuals are presented as the cause of the AIDS epidemic, unwholesome individuals who choose their sinful lifestyle, and unable to be in emotional, well-adjusted commitments to a partner, let alone be married or parents.

This shaming through teaching backs statistics that LGBT youth are at greater risk of substances to cope with stress, suffering from depression or emotional distress, experiencing physical and sexual assault, bullying, injury or threats of injury at school, and attempting suicide.

In 2011, the National HIV behavioral Surveillance System found that 43 percent of men aged 18 to 24 who had sex with men had unprotected anal sex in the past year. The same study revealed that young women who have sex with women experience STIs at similar rates to all women. If schools only refer to anal sex when discussing the crime of sodomy, descriptions of sexual assault, and child abuse, as in one New York district, or only discuss using male contraceptives to prevent STD transmission during oral sex, how do LGBT students learn that consensual oral and anal sex using a wide variety of effective contraception can lead to safe methods of sexual pleasure?

The NYCLU provides several recommendations for New York state schools to follow to ensure students receive “comprehensive, medically accurate, unbiased and age-appropriate sex education” that all states can use to achieve similar results.

In a 2011 Womens Health Activist Newsletter, graduate student Samantha Greenberg called for the Obama administration to implement a federal law requiring that comprehensive sexuality education be taught in all schools. Greenberg recalls her mother telling her as a child that not waiting until marriage to have sex was a sin against god, and learning about sex and reproduction through reading the 1973 children’s book The True Story of How Babies are Made, which would have been out of date by at least 15-20 years.

The Internet can be an excellent source of knowledge, if students know where to find accurate information. Advocates for Youth provides resources for students, educators and parents on topics such as contraception, sexual abuse, homophobia and violence against women, and abstinence. From 2006-2009 “The Midwest Teen Sex Show” created humorous video podcasts to promote the discussion of teen sex and offer advice, with a disclaimer that all information was opinion-based and before attempting any sexual activity, a parent or medical professional should be consulted.

Some parents and religious institutions worry that pornography is the new sex ed, which may lead to teenagers forming unrealistic or dangerous sexual expectations. Could these fears be combated if these same parents and religious organizations took on the responsibility of teaching unbiased information about sex, its risks and rewards to their children?

There is no clear answer or solution for the youth of the world to be educated on sex as a whole. But if you think back on your personal experiences with sex education, what would you have changed? What do you wish you knew then that you know now? What do you want your children, younger siblings, nieces and nephews to know about sex? How can you help ensure that knowledge is available to the next generation?

Let’s talk about sex, baby. Leave us a comment below!

Written by Lauren Slavin

  • Emma

    I mentioned this on the Facebook page but just to add it here – this is definitely a US-centric article! Sex ed varies depending where you are, and I just noticed there was no mention of what country this was talking about, just references to states and National organizations.

    Up here in Vancouver, Canada I found our sex ed pretty good – we learned about contraception, different STIs and where to get tested/treated, different clinics where we could do that and get birth control/pregnancy tests. We even learned how to put condoms on properly, haha. We were given condoms in class and personally I found it easy to get information whenever I needed it.

    It’s definitely a privilege here, to have access to all of those resources and a pretty good sex ed program. I’m really grateful we have it.

    • Kara

      I agree that it definitely varies depending on where you are! I attended a public high school for year 7-10 in Australia, and we had sex ed as a unit of our health class for about one term each year- year 7 was mainly about puberty and changes, etc, although we did get a fairly extensive talk from the school wellbeing team about drugs, sex and possible consequences, year 8 we were taught about contraception (condoms on bananas, all that stuff) and intercourse, in Year 9 that continued and we learnt a lot about STIs and support services and that kind of thing, and then in Year 10 we did a unit on pregnancy and we had to do an assignment on how certain factors, such as drugs and alcohol, can affect pregnancies and also I remember a particular class discussion where we had to write down on a slip of paper what we would do if we or our partner became pregnant, submitted them anonymously and then debated the pros and cons of it as a class. We also had to watch a video on childbirth, followed by a presentation/ question & answer session from a midwife (who then got two of the boys in our group to act out a birthing scenario, so many lols). It was really interesting to be presented with a diversity of opinions on the subject.

      I was actually having dinner with my cousins the other night, two of whom went to a Catholic school and the other three went to private schools, and somehow we got to talking about how vastly different our sex education experiences were. The two that went to the Catholic school were never taught about contraception and were taught the school’s preferred educational method (of timing intercourse to prevent pregnancy) and that was pretty much the extent of their sexual education, whereas my other cousins received a bit of information here and there in health class early on in high school.

      Sorry for the massive comment, but I guess this article really reminded me of the differences not only between countries but also school systems in terms of sexual education. Like Emma said, it’s certainly a privilege to have access to all of these resources and education programs.

      • Kara

        OH, ALSO- on the LGBT thing, from memory, we did a unit on mental health and sexuality as well as our other sex education units, and in the STIs unit we discussed interactions of all gender pairings, I’m pretty sure (it was a few years ago). Mainly I think they just wanted us to be as informed and prepared as possible, really.

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  • Kiana

    Sex ed for me was always a huge part of my middle and high school health class in Washington state. While I feel that they definitely could have covered more, my high school teacher in particular was really great. She made the class fun and informative and offered absolutely NO judgement on the matter (she was even to the point of being a bit too enthusiastic about it…).

  • Laura

    Lauren, I love you. THANK YOU for this article.

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