Gaps in the public education system are easy to find. High school curriculums often gloss over topics that are seen as taboo or unseemly or that members of a community detest. Facts of history and nature are often challenged, and in some cases, revised before they are taught to students. Within sexual health education, students are often given lessons based on so-called family values and morals rather than accurate information. This revisionism does nothing to protect the students: in fact, it does the opposite.
The American school system fails on a massive scale to teach young people about basic reproductive health. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 41 percent of students between the ages of 18 and 19 know little or nothing about birth control pills or condoms. This is a disturbing figure by itself, but especially so when one considers that the average American loses their virginity at the age of 17 according to the Kinsey Institute. Perhaps even more disturbing is that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only six in 10 sexually active teens reported using a condom in their most recent sexual encounter.
Even if our public education system is failing students, other resources are available from which people can learn about reproductive health. Sex Discussed Here! is an organization that brings sex educators to college campuses to discuss reproductive health topics that may have been glanced over previously. Its most popular program, I Love Female Orgasm, recently came to Allegheny. The talk emphasized how women can “befriend their bodies” and have sex in a safer and more pleasurable way.
“It was a very good program. It used humor in order to effectively and enjoyably communicate important information that I definitely did not learn in high school,” said Hannah Firestone, ’18.
The worst thing educators can do to students is limit their sex education to abstinence-only education. Abstinence is a valid option, but it can not be presented as the only viable way of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy. Telling teenagers not to have sex will not prevent or delay them from having sex. A 2007 federal report stated that abstinence-only programs have a negligible impact on the rates of abstinence amongst students.
Students who have been exposed to sexual health education beyond abstinence-only curricula tend to have safer sex than their peers who have not. A 2008 University of Washington study found that students who received comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to become pregnant than those students who had received abstinence-only education.
By avoiding the conversation about sex we put students at risk for not only pregnancy but for STDs. The CDC reports that Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 account for 50 percent of all new carriers of STDs.
The ineffectiveness of the abstinence-only method has been proven time and time again. And yet, 25 states still mandate that abstinence be stressed in health classrooms, above all other options, like birth control or condoms.
If sex education in general is neglected, information about women’s reproductive health is almost entirely ignored. A 2005 study at the University of Wisconsin, Madison found that women failed to identify the clitoris on a diagram as often as the male students did.
Creating a safe space to talk about sex is instrumental in overcoming the barriers that the American education system created. Programs like Sex Discussed Here! are great at doing that. But, we can’t rely solely on private sex educators. We have to do something about the way we teach sex education in schools.