By Sophie Ward
Sexuality is an important part of everyone’s life and teens want to see a change in the way that sex is talked about in schools.
“They treat sex like it’s a problem or just something that people do to reproduce,” junior Aryanna Russell from Atlanta said. “They don’t talk about what sex is, the emotion behind it or how it can be used to have a connection with someone.”
Youth and adolescents in public schools across the country engage in sex education classes with varying curriculums and focuses. Most of these sex education classes concentrate on teaching the importance of abstinence and the potential dangers of having sex before marriage. Recently, sex education classes have become increasingly controversial as students and health professionals across the country are dissatisfied with the way these classes are taught in their schools and desire a better, more comprehensive approach.
“Sex education should equip teens with what they need to know to be adults in the world,” said Brian Creech, a professor at Temple University who previously taught sex education at The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. “So the responsible thing to do is to give them the information they need to make responsible, informed decisions about sexuality, their health and their bodies.”
61% of students polled at the Media & Leadership Academy at the University of Georgia feel that the sex education they recieved at their public school was inadequate and did not provide comprehensive information. The majority of teens from various backgrounds and multiple parts of the country do not feel thoroughly educated on the topic of sex. Even though teens feel this way, school administrators are reluctant to make changes due to fear of stirring up controversy for their school.
“Sex is controversial and there’s a lot of organized groups who focus primarily on schools as a way to forward their own agenda and opinion on sex,” Creech said. “And because administrators are squeamish and risk averse, they are really receptive to any sort of criticism from anyone with a loud voice. There’s nothing a school administrator fears more than an angry phone call from a parent.”
A median 77.2% of schools in the United States teach the benefits of being sexually abstinent in their sex education curriculum according to the CDC’s annual report on School Health Characteristics from 2014. Students claim that these abstinence-only curriculums fail to include practical information that will help them navigate their complicated adolescence, such as how to practice safe sex if they choose to do so, advice on what to do if you do become pregnant and information on types of birth control or contraception. A mere 39.9% of schools teach the importance of using condoms and practicing safe sex in sex education. Focusing on teaching abstinence versus a comprehensive approach could have detrimental effects, including an increase in teen pregnancy and an outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases in teens.
“I think the best way to prevent people from getting STDs or getting pregnant is to actually teach safe and consensual sex,” senior Erin Stafford from Paducah, Kentucky said. “People are going to have sex no matter what so we need to teach people how to use contraception, birth control and condoms.”
Mainstream groups of health professionals, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine, have come out strongly against abstinence-only approaches, stating that this type of curriculum does not provide teens with all the information they need to make wise, informed choices about sex.
Many sex education curriculums focus so heavily on promoting abstinence and discussing all of the potential consequences of having premarital sex that they create the idea that sex is a problem that needs to be solved. This can make students feel like they are doing something terribly wrong that needs to be fixed by having any type of sexual feelings or curiosities. In reality, this is something that is normal and expected for teenagers to experience. Teens feel that they are not able to make their own informed decisions about whether or not to have sex in high school due to the way sex is presented in schools.
“When you get to a mature enough age and you feel like you are ready to have sex, that’s a personal decision and you should be able to without influence from others,” Stafford said. “I don’t think it should be something that you feel guilty about or that you should be told it is going to ruin your life.”
Students already have the potential to feel that sexuality is a taboo subject based on societal impacts, their family’s beliefs or their upbringing. This is further developed when sex education instructors make sex seem like a horrible act that could ruin lives, causing students to be reluctant to ask questions or talk about their sexual feelings.
“The way that sex education is taught makes me uncomfortable to talk to anyone about sex,” Stafford said. “When I go to an OBGYN, a person who I know specializes in sex, I don’t even feel comfortable talking to her because we don’t talk about it in school and it makes me feel like it’s not okay to talk about.”
These issues affect all teens, but some of the effects are specific to female students. Teen girls are made to feel like experiences that are normal and expected for teens, such as being sexually aroused or having curiosities are wrong and should not be discussed.
“Girls experience puberty and those kinds of hormones before guys do, but they don’t really talk about what girls can feel or experience when getting turned on,” Stafford said. When I was younger, I never realized what that feeling was like or why I was having those feelings. They don’t talk about that for girls, but for guys it’s normalized.”
These disparities between sex education for male and female students can send dangerous messages to students that can affect the way they act for the rest of their lives. Discussions about giving and receiving consent before having sex are often left out of the curriculum.
“Whether you’re against teaching too much about birth control, too much about abortion, or going into to much graphic detail about sex, talking about consent should be non-negotiable,” Creech said. “Understanding the language around consent is really important for all teens to fully understand before they go out into the world to make their own decisions about sex and sexuality.”
The purpose of some curriculums adopted by school systems may have religious undertones, even if they are being taught in public schools.
“Public school is supposed to be a secular place so teachers should not bring in their personal beliefs into what they are teaching and that is doing a disservice to the students who may not share those beliefs,” Russell said. “With the religious undertones, they are not going to be inclusive or LGBT people and they are not going to talk about how sex and pleasure works because that doesn’t go with their religious beliefs.”
Sex education classes often limit the discussion to heterosexual relationships, leaving students who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community without accurate, meaningful information about gender identity and sexuality. LGBTQ+ youth are not provided with adequate examples of positive LGBTQ+ relationships, information on safe sex between same-sex couples, or support when questioning their sexuality or gender identity.
“The population of people that are out as LGBTQ+ is greater than it was in the older generation and more people are being open about their sexuality,” sophomore Mira Eashwaran from Milton, Georgia said. “I feel like it needs to be addressed and sex ed needs to be taught for all types of sex. People of that community are more prone to STDs because they are not taught in schools how to be safe.”
This lack of information and support can be detrimental to the mental health of these students and could result in substance abuse, self-harm, and students engaging in risky sexual behavior without proper protection. According to the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), only 4% of LGBTQ+ youth in the United States are taught positive information about LGBTQ+ people or issues in sex and health. These youth are already subject to overt homophobia including physical and psychological bullying and social ostracism coming from their schools, peers and, in some cases, their families. Not being included in the discussions that take place in sex education classes is a form of covert homophobia that further alienates LGBTQ+ students.
“LGBT students are not educated properly on sex and when kids aren’t taught in a safe environment, they go to the Internet,” Russell said. “And that is not an accurate portrayal of sex, especially for young queer people.”
Teens have an abundance of information at their fingertips with their cellphones and Internet access at their disposal at any time. If teens are not educated thoroughly on sex, they are more prone to turn to pornography for their information which does not provide a healthy or accurate depiction of safe sex.
“A lot of pornography is made by women who are trafficked and it’s not a healthy way for teens to learn about sex,” senior Bridget Frame from Roswell, Georgia said. “It’s putting a lot of kids at risk for not knowing what a relationship should be like or how they should be treated in a sexual relationship.”
The adolescent years are extremely important and influential for development. They are the years where you become who you are and discover parts of yourself that you may have not explored before. Teens across the country feel the importance of sex education for all adolescents and want change in the way that it is taught in public schools.
“What people don’t think about when they move to abstinence-only curriculum is that what you’re doing is sending students out into the world without the knowledge they need to manage themselves in the world,” Creech said.