The new SIECUS state profile on sexuality education says that 55% of high school students in my hometown are or have been sexually active. When I was in middle school, I was in a clique of five girls (kind of ashamed to admit this, but there it is); by the time we graduated from middle school, three of the five had already gone full-on PIV. I wasn’t one of them, but I certainly wasn’t far behind; I lost my V-card two months into high school. I wasn’t pressured by the guy I slept with or any of my friends; I wanted to have sex. I was a teenage girl who recognized my sexual desire and made a conscious decision to act on it -- right after trick or treating, no less (before you tell me I was too old to be trick or treating in high school, I was collecting canned goods for a food bank!). But that’s another story.
Anyway, this is why it freaks me out so much that a) abstinence is still being taught in many schools as the only way to prevent pregnancy and STIs and b) when sexuality education is taught, it’s taught in a risk-avoidance framework that only focuses on pregnancy and STIs. Like these are the only topics that matter when it comes to sexuality. Teaching using a risk-avoidance model doesn’t allow for students’ voices to be heard or for their desires to be acknowledged. It doesn’t help them navigate their way through the very murky waters of sexual communication and negotiation; it doesn’t even touch on identifying and talking about sexual harassment and abuse or sexual identity.
We took a class my freshman year of high school that discussed condoms and birth control, but kind of how a top secret government agent might talk about UFOs -- as in, “these things are out there, but that information is classified.” Obviously, this class came way too late. Health education in middle school mostly covered ‘our changing bodies’ and issues related to puberty, and that conversation was too late as well, as our bodies were already morphing into unrecognizable and sometimes very smelly alien creatures.
I mostly dealt with this by a) talking to my one friend* who could confide in her mother about being sexually active and therefore knew where Planned Parenthood was and how to make an appointment, and b) teaching students how to use condoms in the lobby after school as part of an HIV 101 mini-class. I can just imagine that piece of paperwork coming across the principal’s desk: “HIV education! That’s a great idea. They’ll talk about the immune system. It’s biology!”
There are a lot of organizations that are working hard on comprehensive sexuality education for middle and high school students: Advocates for Youth, SIECUS, answer, and Scarleteen to name a few. The first three listed worked together recently with a bunch of health / health education networks and organizations to develop national standards for teaching sex education, which is super exciting! If core subjects have national standards, health education should have them too, no? I mean, having to include standards on lesson plans sucks, but having a list of national standards for sex ed not only normalizes the subject but gives teachers guidelines to help them work toward a more inclusive and comprehensive sexuality and relationships education model, rather than the risk-avoidance model that is so commonly taught now.
*This is the same friend who first took me to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and for that I am forever grateful.