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Information is Power: The State of Sex Ed in the US Today

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Information is Power: The State of Sex Ed in the US Today Photo

by Mia Abrahams | 09/21/2017

Whether it’s the birds and the bees or what the hell actually happens when you get your period, we think the more information the better. So, as you can imagine, the “back to school” mood in September got us thinking a lot about the state of sex education in the US.

Taboo and stigma thrive on misinformation. Not only does sex ed help young people in the United States empower people to talk about topics like sexuality, changing bodies, having sex, and, of course, periods, but research has shown that it reduces teen pregnancy, STDs, and encourages healthy relationships between teens.

So, what is the state of sex-ed of the United States? Well, I wish I could answer that question in a sentence, let alone a blog piece. Basically, it’s a really hard question to answer, because there isn’t just *one* answer. It differs state by state, district by district, even school by school.

Currently, 24 states and DC mandate sex ed (currently NYC does not – check to see if your state does here), but only 13 states require that these instructions be medically accurate (I know, what the….?!?!) — and only 2 states prohibit the program from promoting religion. This is the case even though 93% of parents support sex-ed being taught in middle school, and 96% support it being taught in high school (although, not all these parents agree on exactly what should be taught).

A recent study published by the Guttmacher Institute found that between 2011 and 2013, 43% of teen girls and 57% of teen boys *did not receive info* about birth control before they had sex for the first time, and fewer US teens are receiving sex education now than in the past.

I spoke with a teacher from a public middle school in Brooklyn, Taylor*, to try to understand from an educator’s perspective the complex situation that arises around sex ed, and something she said really struck me: “A mentor of mine once told me: “We expect kids to make all the right decisions, but we deprive them of all the information to make them.”

Of course!! We push teenagers together in classrooms full of hormones and feelings and emotions and don’t give them the information that they need to know how to not get pregnant, prevent STDs, and make informed decisions about protecting their hearts – and then expect them to be able to just… do the right thing anyway? Sure.

As John Oliver points out in his piece Last Week Tonight on Sex Ed (worth a watch for a broad overview of the issues related to the “abstinence-only” approach to sex-ed in this country), the patchwork approach to sex ed poses a big problem. Not only are different teenagers in different schools learning different things, but, for example, in Mississippi while you can talk about contraception, the law prohibits condom demonstrations in class (aka, no condoms on bananas). And, wouldn’t you know it, Mississippi had the second highest teen pregnancy rate in 2015.

So where does this leave the kids? Well, we reached out to our THINX community and asked to hear about their experiences on sex-ed, and the response was overwhelmingly… not so great.

Carrie* from Georgia (a state where sex-ed is mandated, but where it does not have to be medically accurate, and parents can opt their kids out), had an experience that demonstrates how the type of sex-ed that one receives can reinforce damaging stereotypes or misconceptions that being sexually active is “dirty” or “bad”: “We passed a cookie around the room and after it went through everyone's hands the teacher asked us if we still would eat the cookie. She compared the cookie being passed around to having sex with multiple partners, making us believe we would be tainted. [It was an] abstinence-only policy. We were then shown pictures of genitals with different sexually transmitted diseases to scare us further into abstinence!”

Angie*, a high school junior from South Carolina, said, “I've only had two sex ed classes and there won't be anymore in the next two years before I graduate. I don't think schools care anymore, which is scary, especially because in my sex-ed class the teachers wouldn't even address genitalia by their actual names, instead slang words were used like "vajayjay" or "weewee". It was disgusting and confusing, especially being a child who knew what the actual words were!”

Phoebe*, from who is also junior in high school, has been taught that abstinence until marriage is the only way to avoid STIs or pregnancy, even though she believes “sex education should be more about safe sex than abstinence, because kids my age will always want to have sex.”

It’s debatable whether this even counts as “sex education” – or whether these scare tactics do more harm than good. As sexual assault activist Elizabeth Smart told Broadly, these analogies are an example of what *not* to teach young girls: "The way we talk about [sex and abstinence] needs to change...People need to realize there is nothing that can detract from your worth.”

Alex*, from Kentucky, told me: “at the end of our sex ed unit we wrote down anonymous questions and [our teacher told us] she would answer them; our teacher skipped over every single one that dealt with rape and sexual assault.”

Taylor, our teacher friend from Brooklyn, has found in nearly a decade of teaching that her school has had no comprehensive sex education program. She teaches mostly 7th grade, and acknowledges that it could be included when they get older, but so far has seen only the human body and reproductive system – no inclusion of the social and emotional implications of sex.

Taylor acknowledges that her school has a diverse mix of kids from a diverse range of backgrounds, and there might be particular religious or cultural reasons that parents want to keep conversations about sex outside of the classroom.

But, she found was such a lack of information, that when she had a few girls in her middle school become pregnant, a group of her school's teachers took it upon themselves to do something about it. They gathered a group of girls between the ages of 12 and 14, and got explicit permission from parents to talk about sex and contraception, and made a regular time to meet after school.

Taylor said a lot of the time was spent addressing misinformation, like "should you use a female and male condom together?", but there were more difficult questions, like those surrounding older boyfriends and the age of consent. “It was a lot of navigating difficult territory, as a teacher it was a difficult role to be in. I remember feeling like this too much. But, who else are they going to ask?”

Taylor continues: “I’ve worked in a couple different schools, and I’ve never come across a comprehensive sex-ed curriculum built-in to middle-school.” She acknowledges that although we might be uncomfortable at the thought of our kids being sexual, it isn’t fair to deprive them of the information they need. Withholding sex education and information about how to get pregnant or get STDs, limits their power to make informed decisions to prevent these things from happening.  

Ingrid*, from Massachusetts, agrees. She has learned how babies are made, what STDs are, and how reproductive systems work. “But, our school doesn't teach what a condom is or how to use it. We don’t learn about birth control and the benefits. Everything that we need to know to keep ourselves safe is not taught and it's actually causing a real problem. More and more people are having sex without knowing the proper ways to keep themselves safe. They're only being told that sex is bad and they should stay away from it. Which, in my opinion, really isn’t helpful.”

So, what should we see in a sex-ed curriculum? Taylor believes “kids need to learn the basics about how the body works and how people get pregnant, but they also need to understand the social and emotional issues around sex. Self doubt, insecurity, shame, talking to kids about feeling pressured to doing something that they’re not really ready for — we need to give kids the space to talk about things they can’t talk about at home with their families, particularly kids who might be struggling or have questions about gender or sexuality.” Taylor says that she has noticed a lot more gender fluidity in her classroom since she first started teaching, and so it’s worth making sex-ed conversations as inclusive as possible. “When I first started teaching, no one identified as trans, now I have seven kids in my year who do.”

Information is power, especially when it comes to sex. Being a teenager is hard enough, and expecting young people to make the right decisions for themselves and the people around them when they have the wrong information, or no information at all, is a serious misstep.

So, what was your experience with sex ed like? Are you a middle school or high school student, or a parent of one, right now? What was missing, what would you like to have seen more of in your sex ed? We’d *love* to hear from you in the comments!

* Names have been changed.

by Mia Abrahams

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