Across the country, students of all types go through one common experience: puberty.
Yet the way students are taught to respond to puberty and an accompanying interest in sexuality varies wildly based on location. In their quest to learn about their changing bodies and desires, teenagers are derailed by a lack of sexual education or an insufficiently inclusive sex ed experience or sex ed that offers no access to the physical resources necessary for responsible sexual decision-making. This article follows three different stories about three different teenagers’ experiences with sex ed. It is our hope that these narratives will make it clear just how integral comprehensive sex ed is to students’ mental and physical wellbeing.
The ABCs of Abstinence (Sadie, KY)
“It’s okay to talk about sex. It’s okay to think about sex. It’s okay to have feelings about sex. And it’s GOOD to postpone sex!”
That song was the entirety of my brother’s middle school sex education. I received even less guidance, my health teacher deciding it was more important for us to create presentations about psoriasis and celiac disease than to learn about the reproductive organs we all had. This coming from a school where there was always at least one pregnant student come eighth-grade graduation — obviously, the catchy melody wasn’t working.
It should come as no surprise that in a southern, conservative state like Kentucky, I got practically no sex education. But the fact that I have never once heard menstruation mentioned by a teacher somehow never ceases to amaze me.
To be fair, part of the problem was with my health education in general. Although I’m not sure it would have been any better in a brick-and-mortar building, the fact that I took health online over the summer meant that I never had the opportunity to discuss or question the knowledge I received, including that about sexual activity. And while I did receive a list of the different forms of birth control, there was no mention of consent, how to use/acquire said birth control, or LGBT sex. The overwhelming focus was on all the terrible STIs you would get if you were sexually active.
But such experiences are not unique to my family. Rather, Kentucky has recently taken steps to push abstinence education at the expense of other, more effective forms of comprehensive sex ed. Although the state has not gone so far as to ban any non-abstinence related discussions, this April the state legislature passed a billto “require the inclusion of abstinence education in any human sexuality or sexually transmitted diseases curriculum.”
As of today, the only sex-related standards in the state health curriculum mandate that students be able to “explain the benefits (preventing pregnancy, preventing HIV/STDs, maintaining self-esteem) and strategies (e.g., using refusal skills, talking with parents, doctors, counselors) of abstaining from sexual activity.” No mention is made of the benefits of using contraceptives if one does decide to engage in sexual activity or how to actively consent and establish boundaries if someone is part of the 40 percent of high school students who have ever had sexual intercourse.
This results in experiences like that of Lily, a sophomore whose “school sex ed experience was virtually nonexistent.” She says, “Aside from the brief correction for the girl in health who thought that a penis was attached to the side of your hip,”
“we discussed body odor and the correct circular motion necessary to fully clean one’s teeth more than the elements of life.”
Furthermore, many local governments appear unwilling to change. Jaycee, a high school senior in my district, recently attempted to talk to her school about implementing a comprehensive sex ed curriculum. The response was nothing short of dismissive. Says Jaycee, “I was treated really rudely. Speakers who aren’t on the agenda already have to go at the end of the three-hour meeting. I was very purposeful to not include anything too graphic, so they would get the point and not be too uncomfortable with it, but I mentioned the female sex organs, and I was interrupted, so I didn’t even get a full minute to speak.”
This aversion at both a state and local level has real consequences for Kentucky students, as evidenced by the fact that Kentucky has the fifth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, and nearly twenty percent of sexually active teens were under the influence (and unable to consent) the last time they had sex. According to Celia, a junior, “If we’re not being properly educated on how to deal with these kinds of situations, we’re not going to be safe, we’re not going to use condoms, so then it’s going to end in us being harmed. A lot of teens don’t think of consequences.”
“I’ve had friends who have gotten pregnant and had babies. I’ve had friends who have gotten pregnant and gotten illegal abortions.”
Wholly outside of the context of abstinence versus safe sex, students completely lack basic knowledge of how their bodies function. Even those students who do receive these rudimentaries are often divided by gender, with men never learning about how periods work — something they, unlike women, are also unlikely to find out from personal experience or family discussions. This prevents men from being active allies in supporting women’s issues, for example understanding why women may take birth control to stop a heavy flow, why so-called tampon taxes are actually very harmful to women’s finances, or even the most basic “why the teacher lets the girls use the bathroom and not me.” Without the opportunity to ask questions of a knowledgeable and approachable educator, students of all genders remain unaware of what they don’t know, especially LGBTQ+ students, who are most often left out of sex ed curricula and are least likely to receive a comprehensive education from other sources.
The problem is even worse for students with more conservative parents. Because parents are typically allowed to opt their students out of sex ed units entirely, many students who receive absolutely no sex ed are also the students least likely to receive a comprehensive “birds and bees” talk at home. Although I was able to supplement my limited in-school learning with discussions with my open-minded family, many of my peers are not so fortunate. One sophomore who would prefer to remain unnamed told me, “My mother wouldn’t let me watch the video in fourth grade where they discussed periods. Instead, I sat with the boys while they learned about sharks. That was supposed to be my first experience of learning about my body, but that got taken from me because it was supposedly ‘too graphic.’”
Although the government’s antagonism may suggest otherwise, individual schools in Kentucky still have mostly free rein to develop their own sex ed curriculum, so long as they include abstinence education. But facing pressure from higher-ups, parents, or their own personal biases, it is unclear whether administrators will listen to the increasingly desperate pleas of students and establish the sex ed we all need.
Sex Ed — Unless You’re LGBTQ+ (Krithi, CA)
When I was in health during my freshman year of high school, our sex ed unit felt uncomfortable yet extremely informative. During our unit, not only did our health teacher discuss the male and female reproductive systems extensively, but a representative from Planned Parenthood came to our class and discussed the variety of options young women and men have to practice safe sex when their time comes. It was a confusing time for most of us, which was why a majority of the students in my class slept during the lectures or consciously made fun of the STDs we discussed, but
the conversations in my classroom were vital to my classmates’ and my own understanding of sexual health, sexual behavior and birth control.
As one of the bluest states in the country, California has one of the strongest comprehensive sexual education curriculum standards in the United States, thanks to the 2016 California Healthy Youth Act. It requires school districts to provide comprehensive sexual education and HIV/AIDS prevention education once during middle school and once in high school.
The California Healthy Youth Act, created by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D — San Diego), has five primary goals: to provide students with the knowledge needed to prevent teenage pregnancy, STDs, HIV/AIDS; to present students with information that will promote the development of positive attitudes towards sexual orientation, adolescent growth, gender expression, etc; to promote sexuality as normal to human behavior; to give students comprehensive, inclusive and unbiased sexual health and STD and HIV/AIDS prevention instruction; and to promote healthy sexual behaviors using the tools and guidance given.
Studies prove that California’s steps toward initiating change in sexual education conversations among young people are working. Nationally, California is 34th in teen birth rates and over half of all high school studentswho have had sex used a condom in their last sexual encounter.
Though these conversations regarding sex freaked me out at the time, I’m proud that I got the opportunity to discuss birth control, consent and my body before I realized the implications of the curriculum that I was forced to learn. A majority of high school students who live outside of California don’t have the same privileges that I do; some of these people probably need access to the sex ed curriculum much more than I do.
The picture painted of California’s sexual education policy isn’t as beautiful as it may look; there is still a myriad of issues with the curriculum being taught at public schools statewide including lack of LGBTQ+ inclusivity pertaining to birth control, the brevity of the curriculum itself and less student-centered approach to teaching sexual education.
During health class, my teacher skimmed through the use of contraceptives for queer people, namely female condoms, most likely because she didn’t think it applied to most of the students in the classroom.
While claiming to be a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth, this teacher denied the education necessary to establish equity in STD and HIV/AIDS prevention.
While this may seem like a singular incident, refusing to teach LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum could very well happen throughout California. Jennifer Chou, a reproductive justice and gender equity attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, admitted a major flaw in the accountability health teachers have to teach the newly instituted curriculum standards.
“Our sense is a majority of districts are already complying with the law or are on their way to complying with the law,” said Chou. “Unfortunately, there is no mandated reporting requirement associated with the California Healthy Youth Act. As far as I know, no agency is sort of tracking that granularly.”
Additionally, the sexual education unit lasted less than a month, and out of 6 months designated to teach health to freshmen class, it seems nearly impossible to teach the functions of both reproductive systems, birth control, STDs, HIV/AIDS, sexual orientation and identity and so much more within the span of 14+ days.
Since California ensures that instruction for medically accurate, objective non-abstinence only education is required through the Sexual Health Education Accountability Act, the education students receive is all talk from teachers and instructors, which causes a lack of student engagement in conversations meant to benefit them. For the most part, I noticed this in my own classroom when students had little to say in discussions of STD and HIV/AIDS prevention.
The Contraception Conundrum (Lillian, KS)
As we sat on the floor of my school’s gymnasium, our teacher flashed a picture of someone with gonorrhea onto the projector screen. Half of the kids in the class responded with “ew” and “gross,” while the other half turned away to avoid looking at the image again. Our gym teacher told us there were two ways to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. The first way, she explained, was to use every form of protection possible. The second way was to avoid having sex altogether.
Two months later, the girl in my P.E. class whose locker was next to mine found out she was pregnant. After having her baby, she dropped out of school. We were freshmen and she was 15.
The Kansas Model Curricular Standards for Health Education requires teachers to “explain the effects of the risk behaviors of adolescence which increase the risk of various diseases and life-threatening situations (such as alcohol poisoning, dating violence, and sexual harassment) and assess students over content knowledge.” In addition, the curriculum also outlines the specific categories as “dietary behavior, tobacco use, alcohol and drug use, intentional and unintentional injuries, sexual behaviors that result in unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and physical activity.”
My teachers did everything outlined in the standards. They explained how to have safe sex and how to avoid STDs and pregnancy. Even though my peers and I received a seemingly satisfactory sexual education, it is as though many girls at my high school and others in the district, and even outside, still get pregnant often. If my P.E. class’ sexual education unit was so great according to the state of Kansas, why are teenagers still getting pregnant? What was lacking? Kansas was missing a lot such as sexual education for people who are members of the LGBTQ+ community and students who attend private schools.
While my school educated us on the necessity of using birth control and protection, it wasn’t enough. It doesn’t matter how much kids are educated about using birth control, protection, and emergency contraception if they don’t have easy access to items such as condoms and birth control pills.
According to a survey from 2017 by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 40% of teenagers have had some sort of sexual intercourse. Of the 40% of students who had been having sex, 30% reported they had done so within the three months prior to the survey. Out of 30% of those who reported having had sex in the prior three months, 46% did not use a condom the last time they had sex and 14% did not use any form of birth control.
In 2007, the Topeka AIDS Project, now known as Positive Connections, donated about 100 condoms a month to Topeka High. The condoms were placed in a wicker basket in the nurse’s office. Information about free AIDS testing and how to use the contraceptives were also provided.
After two months of condoms and information about AIDS being provided, the school district pulled the plug after a reporter from the local newspaper wrote a story about it. Both Topeka High and the district received backlash from unhappy parents, especially parents who were part of the booster club. The superintendent claimed the Topeka High principal was unaware condoms and information were available to students. In addition, the superintendent said it was something that needed to be dealt with between children and parents. He also stated it was something that needed to be discussed with the school board. Nothing was ever implemented after that ordeal.
The lack of access to in-depth sexual education and contraception is an issue which stems further than just my school district — it impacts students from all across the state of Kansas.
“While it may have been better than some, I think that my sex education at Topeka High had some major issues,” said Bannon Beall, a recent Topeka High graduate. “First, we had no education about consent or sexual assault. That is incredibly dangerous for obvious reasons and, I would argue, even more important than some aspects of sex education that we covered in detail. Second, we had no sex education in regards to LGBT relationships. That is horrifyingly ignorant, exclusive and dangerous.”
Beall also stated that she thinks it is more important teenagers “practice safe, consent-based sex” than just remaining abstinent. In addition, she said she absolutely believes condoms should be provided in schools and that even though providing condoms will not solve every problem, “it would be a step in the right direction.”
Similarly, Alivia Cook, a sophomore at Washburn Rural, another school district, said her school did not teach about sexual assault. Cook said sexual assault should be a topic addressed during a sexual education unit.
“It [sex ed] should be more open and more informative. Also, condoms should be provided in school to ensure the high school kids are being safe,” said Cook. If kids are of age and want to have sex, they should have safe pathways to do so.”
Jacob Gernon, a junior at Topeka High, expressed that his sexual education was also lacking.
“STD education is obviously important, but they really just scared kids with the horrifying pictures of the diseased genitalia,” said Gernon. “They also did not talk about STDs that disproportionately affect some members of the LGBTQ community.”
Additionally, Gernon addressed the lack of access to contraception.
“I do think condoms and other contraceptives should be provided because some teenagers don’t have access to condoms or other contraceptives, so instead they engage in unsafe sex, thus increasing the risk of STDs, STIs, and teen pregnancy.”
The stories of students I interviewed are all horrifyingly similar across school districts — there is a lack of sexual education for LGBTQ+ students, healthy relationships and sexual assault are barely, if ever, brought up, and contraception is something many students believe should be available in school.
In a state like Kentucky, where students get more information from pornography or boastful discussions with friends than from a knowledgeable teacher, their expectations about consent, healthy relationships, and sexual pleasure become distorted. In a state like California, where LGBT students are absent from the lessons meant to educate all students, they will grow up feeling excluded and unprepared. In a state like Kansas, where teaching about safe sex is not accompanied by resources for safe sex, students will continue to contract STIs and become pregnant despite knowing how to prevent such a fate.
Study after study has proven that while abstinence is the only way to completely avoid STDs, abstinence-only education is totally ineffective at preventing students from engaging in risky sexual behaviors. Instead, it induces shame and confusion. The miseducation or lack of education surrounding sex means that students are more likely than ever to enter into relationships that are unknowingly non-consensual, contract STDs they are too ashamed to admit to having, and give birth to children they can’t afford to raise, financially or emotionally.
As these three profiles show, experiences in sex education vary wildly by location, creating a nation in which a child’s sexual safety and preparedness is determined by their zip code.