Monday, October 26, 2009

Some thoughts on sex education

by Jordan Kisner

As the unlucky girl who attended a different school every year for sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth grade, I got to experience some version of sex ed (or “health” or “girls, the nurse is going to speak to you now about your very special bodies”) four different times. Looking back my four encounters with a school’s attempt at sexual education, I am surprised at how different they were—how the information imparted varied so widely from school to school. Why did I learn about menstruation four times, but how to use a condom only once? Why did three schools teach multi-hour units on the undesirability of teenage pregnancy and not one teach us how to talk to our sexual partners about protection, preferences or pleasure?

I think these gaps in middle and high school sexual education can be traced to the philosophy behind the curriculum. By and large, at the four California schools I attended the intention of these classes was not to engage the students in an honest conversation about our questions, fears, or ideas about sex. The gym teachers, science teacher and elderly community service director (seriously) I took class with ran these courses the way a college professor conducts a lecture class: they talked, we took notes. This, studies show, is the wrong way to go about teaching teens about sex and reproductive health. Kaiser did a study that found that teenagers want and need more information than they are getting in their sexual education classes:

“Approximately half of students in grades 7-12 report needing more information about what to do in the event of rape or sexual assault, how to get tested for HIV and other STDs, factual information on HIV/AIDS and other STDs, and how to talk with a partner about birth control and STDs. Two in five also want more factual information on birth control, how to use and where to get birth control, and how to handle pressure to have sex. Yet a significant percentage report that these topics are not covered in their most recent sexuality education course, or that they are not covered in sufficient depth.”

The way to solve this problem is not simply to provide teens with longer lectures, but to create space for conversations about their own perceptions of sex and give them a forum to ask their own questions. A survey of 250 high school students conducted by the D.C. Council’s Committee on Health found that young women in particular need open discussion about personal sexual issues: “Some female participants also want to be able to discuss more personal issues with health educators… such as “What do you do when sometimes when you’re having sex and it hurts, but at the same time, you know what I mean—it feels good?” The study also found that teenage girls reported a higher level of discomfort talking to their parents about sex, which seems a likely explanation for their greater need for information from school sex educators.

The only attempt at personal discussion any teacher ever made happened in ninth grade, when girls and boys were divided into separate rooms and addressed by a “peer adviser.” That’s right—the personal discussion time of the twenty-five girls in my sex ed class was moderated not by a sex educator, but by another high school student, and a male one at that. Apparently, the female peer adviser was out sick that day, so the girls were addressed by a popular junior boy who was as uncomfortable as he was well meaning. I thought that he was going to be fielding our sex-related questions (“Yeah, right,” I thought to myself), but after we settled, sitting Indian-style on the floor, he asked us solemnly, “So, how many of you are planning to wait until you get married to lose your virginity?”

Every hand in the room sailed into the air except mine and one other, which belonged to the only other girl in the room who was new. It was our fourth week at a new school and we managed, in a moment, to single ourselves out as the only two “loose” girls in the room. I only realized the statement I was inadvertently making about myself in retrospect; in the moment I was completely bewildered. The idea of marriage as the sole determinant of whether or not I was ready to have sex was foreign and confusing to me, and as every last one of my classmates sat there with their hands raised, I felt like I had missed a crucial memo. My mother still tells the story of how I charged into our kitchen that afternoon and demanded, “Mom, why didn’t you ever tell me I’m supposed to wait until I’m married to have sex!?” What had followed in the classroom was not a conversation about feeling ready, protection, trust in your partner or emotional maturity, but, rather, a line of questions aimed at me and the other new girl about our “unusual choice.”

Fortunately for me, I had a mother who provided me with the opportunity that none of the four versions of sex ed did—the chance to express my questions, ideas and opinions about sex to someone with the experience and knowledge to guide me toward safe and healthy decisions. But for the many girls unable or unwilling to have that rapport with their parents, being failed by sex education classes (through lecture-style, inaccurate information or an abstinence-only approach) puts them at great risk. Advocating for comprehensive sex education that makes time for personal discussion in the curriculum is a step in the right direction, as is supporting extracurricular programming that gives teens a safe forum to talk about these issues. Still, a greater overhaul of our current method of teaching adolescents about sex and reproductive health is needed if we are really going to curb rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, and equip young people to mature into healthy, fulfilled sexual beings. Any ideas?

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