The U.S. can’t exactly boast about its health education. Only 23 states have rejected federally funded abstinence-only programs, meaning that most students in the U.S. are being taught not to have sex outside of marriage rather than how to protect themselves. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education and 34 states mandate HIV education. Only 27 states have general requirements for sex and HIV education, when taught; only thirteen require that the information they teach be medically accurate. So, it comes as no surprise that the U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate (55 out of every 1,000 fifteen to nineteen year-olds) and the highest rate of teens with STDs out of countries in the industrialized world. After President George W. Bush initiated some abstinence programs, federal evaluations in 2007 showed that these programs had no impact whatsoever on when teens decided to have sex. You may be scratching your head in confusion at this point, and I don’t blame you, this makes no sense. If schools know that teens are having sex, shouldn’t they provide students with the best information possible on how to be safe? You would hope so. You would hope that health class would teach about condoms and all birth control options, that they would explore sexual orientation and gender identity in their curriculum, and that consent was emphasized.
LM, with all its prestige and progressiveness, can’t escape the temptation of teaching the “fear” of sex. This past summer, LM students took an online health course whose curriculum was littered with chilling phrases. Statements such as, “You cannot get back your virginity, but you can get back abstinence anytime you choose…” and “There are a lot of consequences to having intercourse. And then there’s also, at the very tail end, a loss of self-control and self-respect. That is why abstinence is the only correct answer.” Throughout the course, abstinence remained heavily emphasized and sexual intercourse was treated as a thing to be ashamed of, as if sexual attraction were not a natural phenomenon that is present in most people (unless of course one is asexual; there is an unfortunate lack of education about sexualities other than heterosexuality).
When sex is treated as taboo, people grow up not knowing how to deal with the emotional baggage that can often come with intercourse, not understanding basic concepts like consent and frantically searching the web for solutions to unwanted pregnancies and STDs. The lack of knowledge is astounding. I have talked to boys who still do not understand periods. How can one expect to graduate and be a grownup without basic health knowledge? Obviously, teaching these topics once in fifth grade (in groups separated by the gender binary for a single lecture) is not enough. Middle school health also touched on menstruation. We were briefly taught about our body parts in middle school—which of course should be done—but such education needs to continue throughout our health education experience. In order to remove cultural stigmas, gender stereotypes, and narrow belief systems about bodily health and sexual preferences, schools need to lay down a foundation of unbiased health education.
Abstinence should not be taken out of the curriculum, but it needs to be taught as an option rather than “the only foolproof answer.” Students who choose to abstain from sexual relations until they are older or married should not be ashamed; everyone knows what’s right for themselves, and no one should be in a situation where they are made uncomfortable. Health class must recognize the dilemmas that students face and teach that no matter what choice you make in regard to sex, it is fine. Teenage relationships tend to be tumultuous because of a lack of maturity and experience.
For many kids, asking their parents for advice is not an option, and health class becomes the only resource they have for this type of education. If you are having sex and need a resource, Planned Parenthood’s website is a reliable source. I recently stumbled upon a website called Killer and A Sweet Thang that is run by Eileen Kelly, a professional sex educator. This website is a blog of sorts that deals with all kinds of issues: sexual orientation, sex toys, protection against pregnancy, STDs, etc. It is a good resource for anyone who is questioning their gender identity, sexual orientation, or anything at all relating to sex or the emotions that come with it. This blog deals with the topics that should be discussed in a high school health class.
As long as you are not hurting other people, you can have consensual sex. As long as you are doing it because you want to, you can abstain from sex. Just be safe.
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Graphic by Sihan Wu '19/Staff