The Birds and the Bees
We all remember the scene from Mean Girls when Cady Heron, played by Lindsay Lohan, sits uncomfortably in her high school gym as her sex ed teacher explains, “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant, and die.” We laugh at the absurdity of this claim and think “How could sex education be so erroneously preached?” Well, for many young Americans, the reality of a lack of quality sex education is far from a laughing matter. For decades, sex education has remained a controversial topic within school districts. Whether schools should even provide education on sexual health or leave it up to the discretion of the parents or guardians is widely debated. Uncertainty and misinformation still circulates around schools across the United States, begging the question: How can sex education be improved for young adults across the country? I attended a very conservative, Catholic high school in South Texas. My high school’s policy was abstinence, and because the school was privately funded, sex education was completely out of the question. For the first couple years of high school, I was convinced that everyone around me followed this policy and went about their merry way not having sex. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school, when a friend asked me to accompany her to the drugstore to buy condoms, that I realized this policy of abstinence-until-marriage was futile. Telling an auditorium full of teenagers with raging hormones not to have sex was like telling hungry 4-year-olds not to eat the candy laid out before them. The candy was there, and they were going to take it. Looking back, I realize how naive I was to think that out of the 350 students at my school, NO ONE was having sex. This obliviousness was also accompanied by a lack of knowledge concerning all things birth control. I had no idea how to use a condom, nor could I name more than two STDs. Everything I had learned about sex, which was hardly anything, had come from watching reruns of Degrassi (shoutout to my boy Drake). My experience, however comical, is not unique. For many middle school and high school aged students in the United States, the policy of abstinence-until-marriage is the only sex education they will receive before graduating high school and entering a less sheltered, and often more sex positive reality. According to the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), over the past five years, Congress has spent over $1.5 billion on abstinence-until-marriage programs, yet no study in a professional peer reviewed journal has found these programs to be broadly effective. So what does that mean for those students receiving this type of sex education? They remain in the dark about preventative measures for unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that only 24 states and the District of Columbia require public schools teach sex education, of which only 21 include information on HIV and AIDS. Although these states are federally mandated to include sex education in their curricula, they often fall short in teaching quality sex education. This includes age appropriate education that addresses sexual consent as part of a healthy relationship. Communication with and understanding of one’s sexual partner leads to a better understanding of what consent is, something extremely crucial when entering the college environment. With the issue of sexual assault on college campuses being everywhere in the media these days, the importance of understanding what consent is and how it applies to sex can prevent a number of sexual assaults that would otherwise have horrible consequences and devastating emotional damage for those who are involved. Better-informed high school students can lead to a healthier understanding of sex in college and life beyond school. Quality sex education also includes a better understanding of what sexual assault is and how it can be prevented within a relationship. Sex education should be more inclusive of those students who don’t identify as straight. As it is now, sex education is incredibly heteronormative, often leaving LGBTQ students feeling confused and alienated. Promoting a more positive and inclusive attitude of LGBTQ sex can reduce the stigma surrounding the LGBTQ community and create a more positive school environment. More comprehensive sex education reduces high-risk sexual behavior amongst teens of all sexualities. The argument against sex education in middle and high schools is hardly substantiated. Although more open-minded and, some would say, socially-aware parents and teachers are supportive of this curricula being taught in schools, more conservative parents believe this is a topic better suited for conversations at home. The trouble here is, are parents really addressing the most important issues on sexual health and healthy relationships? Opposition to sex education is often fueled by a belief that sex is meant for a married man and woman. Lack of education regarding STDs, in particular HIV and AIDS, is also fueled by the outdated belief that STDs and other infections are the result of immoral or unjustified sexual behavior. Along with this increased spread of misinformation, including the belief that sex education causes long term psychological effects, is the denial that teens are having sex before marriage. Simply put, teens and young adults have sex. To better sexual health on both the personal and public scales, it is crucial to build a more positive and open environment regarding sex education. Healthy sex is good sex. Healthy sex among informed teenagers who understand consent and support sexuality across the board is even better. Sexual health is not just an issue for a single person; it affects society on a greater level. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to receive sex education in my high school, and I can only hope that the dismissive attitude toward healthy sex changes in the years to come. We need to encourage responsible sexual behaviors among teens if we hope to create a more sex positive society, one that is inclusive and doesn’t rely on outdated views to prevent these progressive measures. This starts in schools with quality sex education that is supported by parents, teachers, and lawmakers who govern our society. For more information about safe sex and healthy relationships, you can visit http://www.ashasexualhealth.org.