What Has Your Sex Education Been Like?

What Has Your Sex Education Been Like?

Have you taken any sex education classes during your time in school? In what grade did they start? What topics have you covered each year?

Over all, do you feel you have gotten an adequate education around sex? Why or why not?

In “As Colorado Moves to Bar Abstinence-Only Sex Education, Teenagers Take the Lead,” Dan Levin writes about a new law that would require schools in the state to teach comprehensive, medically accurate sex education:

Last year, when Clark Wilson was in eighth grade, his sex education teacher repeatedly rolled a piece of tape on a table until it lost its stickiness, using words like “tainted” and “impure” to describe those who engage in premarital sex.

The lesson: “People are like tape and once they have sex they’re dirty and can’t have meaningful relationships,” said Clark, now 15 and a freshman at a Colorado high school in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch.

While sex education classes are not mandatory in Colorado, proposed legislation that is widely expected to pass would bar the state’s public and charter schools from abstinence-only education.

Clark was among several students who testified last month in support of the bill, which would also mandate teachings about safe sex, consent and sexual orientation, elements that have prompted a fierce backlash from those who argue they pose an attack on traditional family values and parental rights.

The comprehensive sex education bill, which passed the House this week and is headed to the Senate, would make Colorado the ninth state in the nation to require that consent be taught. Washington, D.C., also teaches consent.

Colorado, with its increasingly liberal cities but strong conservative footholds, is a microcosm of the larger national debate over sex ed. Across the country, 37 states require abstinence be covered or stressed, while only 13 require sex education to be medically accurate, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health. In seven states, laws prohibit educators from portraying same-sex relationships positively.

In many schools, however, the focus on abstinence goes beyond just warning children about sexually transmitted infections or unplanned pregnancies. Often, students say, teachers tear off flower petals or pass around an object like tape, a stick of gum or a chocolate bar that becomes increasingly grubby as it’s touched.

Studies have repeatedly shown that abstinence-only education increases rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, while comprehensive sex education lowers such risks. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2000 to 2014, schools that required sex education dropped to 48 percent from 67 percent, with half of middle schools and more than three-quarters of high schools focusing on abstinence. Only a quarter of middle schools and three-fifths of high schools included lessons about birth control. In 1995, 81 percent of boys and 87 percent of girls reported learning about birth control in school.

In response to this news, The Edit, a newsletter written for and by college students and recent graduates, invited young people to share their sex ed experiences. Here’s what they had to say:

Shelby Scott, Knoxville, Tenn.

I was born and raised in Mountain Brook, Ala., which is an upper middle class community in the conservative Christian South. In ninth grade, health teachers showed pictures of late-stage STIs and we had an external speaker come to discuss sex more fully. The program she taught was staunchly abstinence only. The first demonstration she gave was the “dirty piece of tape,” in which we were told that having multiple sexual partners prevents your ability to have emotionally fulfilling relationships. While some students (especially those with more open-minded/realistic parents) knew the education we received was unhelpful, for other students it was legitimately harmful. After months of discussing whether they were ready and both consented, a close friend had sex with her college boyfriend. Later in the evening, I went over to her room and found her crying and repeating, “I’m a dirty piece of tape,” the message she internalized from our ninth grade health class.

Caleb Goldberg, Louisville, Ky.

My sex education class at a small private school in Louisville lasted between seventh and ninth grades (for reference, this is during 2012-15). It wasn’t an abstinence-only class, but it was pretty close. We learned extensively about STDs, while condoms and contraception were only mentioned in passing, and the emotional aspect of sex wasn’t, to my recollection, discussed at all. It was extremely heteronormative — gay men were briefly mentioned in the context of AIDS, and no other references to the L.G.B.T. community were made. I identify as more or less asexual so this inadequate education doesn’t really affect me too much, but I still think it would have been beneficial for me and my fellow students to have heard a more honest account of sexuality.

Linnea Peterson, Minnesota

The most comprehensive sex ed I ever got was actually provided by my church. Most people are horrified when they hear this, but my church is an anomaly. In the 1980s, we were the first large Lutheran church to be led by a female pastor, and, in 2012, we became the first large Lutheran church to be led by an openly gay pastor. My church-led sex ed was not the “don’t have sex or you’re going to hell” talk people sometimes envision. Rather, when I was in seventh grade, I went on a weekend-long retreat with my church that discussed healthy relationships, gender roles, sexual orientation, stereotypes, STDs, and birth control. The retreat certainly didn’t ensure that all of my relationships would be healthy (they weren’t), but it did much more than my public junior high or public high school did to equip me for the world of intimacy.

Amanda Haas, Westlake, Ohio

I went to Catholic grade school and high school in the suburbs of Cleveland. In fifth grade they taught us what sex was, and in eighth grade we talked more about STDs, pregnancy, and the value of waiting until marriage to have sex. In high school we learned about birth control, condoms, and looked more in depth about what sex was biologically. My teacher had a box where we could anonymously ask questions and made us all yell “Scrotum!” out the window to get the giggles out and make us more comfortable. I’m really thankful for the fact I had comprehensive sex education with an emphasis on abstinence, the emotional weight of sex, and the value of waiting for someone who cares about you. I think giving young people all the facts allows them to make better decisions. I’m personally still a practicing Catholic and at 23-years-old my boyfriend and I have been dating for three years without having sex.

Rebecca Oss, Yardley, Pa.

I’m a high school senior who goes to a public school with about 4,000 students. In my district, “health class” starts in fifth grade and goes to tenth grade, but only three years (fifth, seventh, and ninth) include sex ed. Ninth grade had 45 days of health, half being basically: “drugs are bad.” We talked about consent and how relationships can be abusive. We talked about a couple types of birth control. We were told there were three types of sex (vaginal, oral, and anal). We talked about porn and how it was not a realistic view of sex (though we were never given any information on what sex should really look like). Most of that class was about STIs, however. I am not sure if it was intentional or not, but a lot of what we covered seemed to be: “look at these disgusting diseases you could get from sex, so stay away!!!” There are some topics I really wish I had been taught, though. I wish we had talked about L.G.B.T.Q. relationships. I wish we had covered the fluidity of sexuality and gender too. And most importantly I wish we had had this class more often, so that I could more easily feel comfortable talking about these topics.

Zach Eisenstein, Washington, D.C.

As a young person starting to come to terms with my queer identity, I never benefited from a lesson or curriculum that I could even remotely see myself reflected in before college. When I got there, I lucked my way into a human sexuality course during my first semester. I actually learned about sex. I learned about enthusiastic consent. I learned that no penis is too large for a condom. But, most importantly, I learned that sex education is so much more than telling students to avoid “risky” behaviors that could lead to STIs or unintended pregnancies. My sexuality is not a risk. It’s just a part of who I am. And I should have learned that long before I got to college.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

— What has your sex education been like? Is it abstinence-focused or more comprehensive? What topics have you covered in your classes?

— What has been the most impactful experience — either positive or negative — you’ve had during your sex education? What made it so powerful?

— How do you feel about your sex education over all? For example, do you feel informed and empowered by your experience? Or confused and demeaned? Do you feel comfortable with your own body and sexuality? Do you feel prepared to have healthy relationships with others? Do you feel you have a good understanding of all the aspects of a sexual relationship — the social, emotional and biological? Why or why not?

— What topics do you wish you had learned more about in sex ed? Why?

— Do you think states should require that schools teach comprehensive, medically accurate sex education? Or should schools decide their own curriculums? Should parents be permitted to opt their children out of sex ed lessons? Why or why not?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.