A Sex-phobic Nation in a Sex-centric Society: The drive to change sexual education

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • How did we get here and where are we going?
  • Sex Education 101
  • Unrealistic Expectations
  • What are realistic expectations?
  • Modern Support for Change
  • Entitled to Education

**Glossary of key terms!

 

A Sex-phobic Nation in a Sex-centric Society: The drive to change sexual education

Hooking up, nookie, making love, doing the deed, bumping uglies, knocking boots, horizontal tango, baby making, getting lucky…. SEX. We are talking about good ole fashion sexual relations. Call it what you will, we are talking about sex. Specifically, sex education. Oh, the stigma about talking about sex with kids. We all sat through the dreaded middle school and high school health classes where there were giggles, eye rolls, and avoided eye contact with the teacher when sex was the topic. Not just the act of intercourse, but STD’s, STI’s, pregnancy, anatomy of reproductive organs and relationships. Many have grown up with sex education being taught in a daunting, stigmatized, abstinence only framework. Sex education is taught a part of a generalized

Photo shared by Elise Lavalle in “Keep the sex in high school sex education”

health education course where there is a general overview of all things to keep our bodies healthy, but most of which is spent teaching drugs and sex are bad. Are we still teaching the correct materials? What influences the materials schools teach? Emphasis on abstinence or safe sex? What more we can do as a society and in the health field to break down the stigma about the birds and bees? Is sex really bad? 

The United States is so fixed on sex and sexualizing every thing, but we hate to talk about actual sex acts, being sexual beings, and sharing factual education about sex to youth. Sounds crazy when you read that statement, doesn’t it? The contradiction in our actions to our teachings is profoundly disturbing. We tell our youth that they are not allowed to act on their sexual desires, but create highly sexualized films for them to watch. We teach boys about how to put a condom on a banana, but we do not tell young girls how to talk to their parents about getting birth control or where to access it. We share that sexual desires are normal, but we don’t clearly explain what consent is. Mother’s are shamed for breast feeding their babies because their boobs are showing. Girls are told not to wear tank tops in schools because their shoulders are distracting to other student’s learning environment. Men and women’s bodies are glorified in the media, but the fundamental act of sexual behaviors are frowned upon talking about. It’s like telling a child how babies are conceived, “When a man loves a women, they…”, but they never actually teach the child what it looks like when a man loves a women, what open communication looks like, how to love yourself before you love others, and how to respect your partner’s body and your body equally. In order to understand the need for improved sex education, it is important to identify the history, economics, politics and policy, development and implementation of education, adolescent psychology and public health in the modern world. Sexual education is interdisciplinary in nature, but it is the goal to modify the mixture to meet modern values and expectations.

How did we get here and where are we going?

In 1975, the World Health Organization defined sexual health:

“Sexual health is the integration of the somatic, emotional, intellectual, and social aspects of sexual being, in ways that are positively enriching and that enhance personality, communication, and love. Fundamental to this concept are the right to sexual information and the right to pleasure.”

This definition was a beginning structure to speaking about sexual health in an encompassing way which moved focus further from social hygiene and moral purity which was started in the early 1800s. In 1892 the

National Education Association promoted sexuality education as a necessary part of education curriculum. In 1913 the 4th International Congress on School Hygiene promoted publicly funded sexuality instructions for parents to expand the classroom. One would propose

Publication from 1940 from the National Library of Medicine

that since we have been speaking about sex education for so long in our history that one would be able to speak open and freely about it at school and at home, but that is not always the case. Legislation continued to grow for sex education in 1970 when congress established Title X which provided funding for educational programs, research, and family planning services. This all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? The world seemed to be coming together to provide more open access for sexual education for the youth of our country. Except, curriculum started to become heavily regulated in topics when congress authorized $250 million for abstinence-only education.

Abstinence-only education is based around the idea, “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant, and you will die.” as the movie Mean Girls said it best. It is definitely reasonable to teach abstinence or saving yourself for marriage, but in the 21st century, is it reasonable? (We will discuss that question soon) Moving forward in history, some started to realize that abstinence only was not working for the country. Debra Hauser conducted a study in 2003 for Advocates for Youth which found “Pennsylvania’s state-sponsored programs were ineffective in delaying sexual intercourse or promoting skills and attitudes consistent with sexual abstinence.”. In 2008, a count of 25 states rejecting the federal funding for abstinence-only programs. Further more, in 2010, congress funded the Personal Responsibility Education Program which funds $75 million each year for evidence-based, medically accurate, and age-appropriate programs. These programs include abstinence AND contraception education. Did you notice the difference in funding between abstinence-only education and comprehensive education? A whopping $250 million for abstinence and $75 million for comprehensive evidence based research and education. As the years have come and gone, there is proven fact that more states agree with comprehensive sex education is leaps and bounds above abstinence only, yet funding continues to poor into telling kids to say no to sex.  (Sex Education history gathered by Planned Parenthood and Advocates for Youth)

Sex Education 101

Sex education is taught slightly different in every school because of the way programs are federally funded and if the school is public or private. Education received in school is known as “formal” where instruction takes place in a formal setting at a school, youth center, church, or other locations in the community as these are the areas which adolescence spend most of their time from elementary to high school. Topics being taught vary based on funding and school district policy,  but according to the CDC School Health Profiles of 2016 most focus stays true to prevention of unintended pregnancy, HIV, and sexually transmitted diseases. Within these topics, the CDC explains that it includes benefits of being sexually abstinent, decision-making skills, and condom use. No where in the research about what is being taught states they teach about what healthy relationships look like, sexual harassment, what sexual empowerment is, aspects of human anatomy and hormones, consent, or what it might feel like when you are ready for sex/how you

National Sexuality Education Standards

know you are ready. Interesting, very interesting. 

 

National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K-12 set forth education standards which are developmentally and age-appropriate. This is value for their set importance on setting goals for children as young as 2nd grade. The publication states:

“The National Sexuality Education Standards were further informed by the work of the CDC’s Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool(HECAT)3; existing state and international education standards that include sexual health content; the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: Kindergarten – 12th Grade; and the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics, recently adopted by most states.” 

Most states have adopted the standards which is phenomenal. Although it may sound like I am fighting that schools run wild teaching kids about whatever they want, there are rules to this education. There are standards set for the school districts, but what I am “preaching” and finding research on is that the content is ineffective and not encompassing of human sexuality as a normative function.

Unrealistic Expectations

What’s the issue with sex education today? Well, for starters there are 30 states which follow abstinence laws and policies in regards to sex education content (Stanger-Hall & Hall, 2011, pg. 3). In research of abstinence-only education in correlation to teen pregnancy rates, the results are shocking. Our nation is hell bent on teaching our youth to delay sexual activity until marriage to prevent unplanned and unwanted pregnancies as well as reduce the rates of STDs. Yet what they are still failing to clearly see are the facts; abstinence education does not cause abstinent behavior. In states of strictly abstinence-only sex education, 73.24 teen pregnancies per 1000 girls aged 14-19 occurred (Stanger-Hall & Hall, 2011, pg. 4). Compared to states which did not discuss abstinence, 58.78 teen pregnancies per 1000 girls aged 14-19 (Stanger-Hall & Hall, 2011, pg. 4). Further more, evaluations of these programs, found no delay in first sex and some even found that there was increased sexual activity. The abstinence-only content is proven to not be effective at achieving any fundamental goals of the education. Abstinence-only education is built on the unrealistic notion that by telling youth something is bad and not to do it, that they will listen. Good joke. There is no way that an adolescent brain will follow that logic. You tell someone not to look at something, they instantly feel the urge to look. You tell someone not to look at another person with sexual desires, you are simply naïve as to how fundamental sexual desires are to the human brain and body. Kerby Handerson, author of Sex Education (2005) in the chapter titled “Comprehensive Sex Education Does Not Work”, writes a statement of complete opposition to my last thoughts:

“When your audience is impressionable teens entering puberty, explicit sex education does more to entice than educate. Teaching them the “facts” about sex without providing any moral framework merely breaks down mental barriers of shame and innocence and encourages teens to experiment sexually.”

Henderson continues to explain that comprehensive sex education lacks information geared towards moral and logistical support. He states that sex education increases knowledge about sex, but nothing to affect values and behavior. Henderson believes students want to learn about abstinence, which can have some truth. But when the abstinence education programs are withholding information about what a healthy relationship with yourself and a partner looks like and safe sex practices, no one is being helped.

Abstinence only education has a solid evidence trail of threatening fundamental human rights by withholding information

Identification of the highs and lows of funding within the most recent Presidential terms. Photo provided by the Guttmacher Institute

about sexuality, providing stigmatizing and medically inaccurate information.

In my mind, it is simple, accept the evidence-based, medically accurate education as best practice. For other’s it is not so simple as congress continued to fund $90 million for abstinence-only programs in the fiscal year 2017. That breaks down into $15 million for faith-based programs and $75 million to programs which teach that sex outside of marriage has horrific physical and psychological effects. Our nation’s stance on how imperative it is we keep abstinence only education heavily funded elicits funding costs that could be put to better use.

What are realistic expectations?

The identification of realistic expectations should not come from politics or economics, rather they should be identified from psychology, sociology, and evidence based data that does not originate from the 1800’s. We must appreciate the time where discussing sex outside of the home was taboo, when sexual education was designed to limit the spread of STDs, and sex before marriage broke all morals and values. Now, it is time for understanding that times are not what they use to be. Thus, holding today’s youth to the standards of the past is unrealistic and cruel by failing to understand their potential for adaptation to educational advancements and sexual development. There continue to be current mandates which prohibit educating youth about the benefits of contraceptives

Photo credit to Andrew Paterson VIA Getty Images

and condoms. Contraceptives and condoms. Contraceptives and condoms? Two of the most basic sex education terms, yet there are school which do not inform students about them. It feels disheartening to know that our nation is still surviving on believers that adolescents cannot be sexual human beings. Furthermore, it is crucial that we work to create an understanding of what is realistic to expect of adolescent sexuality and how to support positive sexual outcomes which identify as safe, respectful, and responsible practices.

“In order to create social change…it is necessary for our research questions and designs to incorporate the social contexts in which sexuality develops and recognize those conditions that enable sexuality as a positive dimension of our humanity.” (Tolman & Mcclelland, 2011, p. 251). 

Comprehensive Sexuality Development in Adolescence: A Decade in Review (2011) is notably a resource which needs to be reread by our elected government officials. The review identifies three key areas of adolescent sexuality development; sexual behaviors, sexual selfhood, and sexual socialization.

  1. Sexual Behaviors are just that, behaviors which are sexual. There is not much to dispute with this area of development or clarification for sexual education. Only noteworthy to identify that in order to be comprehensive, programs must address behaviors including oral sex, anal sex, erotic touching, manual stimulation, and cunnilingus (Tolman & Mccelland, 2011, p. 245). Clarification of what constitutes as sex and practices of safe sexual behaviors to minimize risk is fundamental.
  2. Sexual Selfhood is area of study which interests supportive research for understanding of sexual motivations, sexual desires, and self-competence (Tolman & Mccelland, 2011, p. 246). Support is shown through adolescent psychology identifying “…there as been interest in active decision making about having sex, having sex early (usually considered before age 16, and having sex for the first time as a part of a more expansive developmental process.” (Tolman & Mcclelland, 2011, p. 246). To create a positive learning experience, we must identify adolescents as individuals capable of making positively motivated sexuality choices (Tolman & Mcclelland, 2011, p. 246). When policy makers are making the choice to deny development of sexual decision making skills and the ability to identify positive and negative sexual outcomes- adolescents will most likely make sexual choices through negative or unsafe behaviors. Where there is a will, theres a way. But what is most important in sexual selfhood is the internal determination about what feels satisfying, what is preferred, and what is disliked. An added communication skill of listening to the body and mind should be highlighted substantially in sexual education. 
  3. Sexual Socialization could notably be the most complex aspect for adolescents in the modern world. The sexual experiences, social process, and biological process influenced by the role of neighborhoods, parental communication, religion, and culture (Tolman & Mccelland, 2011, p. 247). With social media, television, live streaming, and The Google, almost everything we do is in the eye of the public and/or influenced by such. Further emphasizing the question, why can’t sexual education be more public? Implications of highly publicized resources and talk of comprehensive sexual education could be monumental. The talk-ability factor of projecting information continuously could lead to improved knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

Through comprehensive understanding of sex as a function of our being and ways in which adolescents view it, we are able to make adaptations to our education. Al Vernacchio shares an extremely interesting change in the way which we use metaphors for sex through his TED Talk in 2012. Changes in the way topics are presented, changes in how we think about sexual acts, and how relationships function in sexual nature.

The perfect transition into identification of what makes up effective sex education as we now know adolescents desire to know about it, make decisions for themselves, and understand there is a social influence on their knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. Advocates for Youth identified 10 characteristics of sex education programs:

  1. Offer age- and culturally appropriate sexual health information in a safe environment for participants;
  2. Are developed in cooperation with members of the target community, especially young people;
  3. Assist youth to clarify their individual, family, and community values;
  4. Assist youth to develop skills in communication, refusal, and negotiation;
  5. Provide medically accurate information about both abstinence and also contraception, including condoms;
  6. Have clear goals for preventing HIV, other STIs, and/or teen pregnancy;
  7. Focus on specific health behaviors related to the goals, with clear messages about these behaviors;
  8. Address psychosocial risk and protective factors with activities to change each targeted risk and to promote each protective factor;
  9. Respect community values and respond to community needs;
  10. Rely on participatory teaching methods, implemented by trained educators and using all the activities as designed.

Realistic expectations of adolescents have been identified clearly, but it is now up to educators, politicians and advocators to implement effective sex education which informs, protects, and empowers our youth.

Modern Support For Change

Change does not come easy. Change does not come fast. Change does come from continued support and facts. The Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Public Health Association, the Institute of Medicine, the American School Health Association and the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. Yes, I am name dropping. That list of organizations are ones which have made it clear they are supporters and advocates for comprehensive sexual education. Evidence also suggests that education which includes contraceptives and abstinence information has a positive impact on development of healthy relationships as well as avoidance of STDs and unplanned pregnancies. The support continues as demonstrated by a poll of 1,000 Republicans and Independents, 60% of Republicans and 81% of Independents think public school should teach a comprehensive approach. Support grows, yet change in schools is limited. Most recently limited by opposition from the Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Valerie Huber is a abstinence education coordinator in Ohio who “pushed a religiously-motivated agenda to promote false and misleading information about sexual health and deny

Graphic provided by Advocates for Youth: Millennial Thinking

young people the education and skills they need to lead healthy lives.” as stated in an opposition letter to the appointment. What Valerie lacks in understanding of how limiting abstinence-only is, Millennials make up in support for comprehensive sex education. When talking about who is going to make discussions for these matters next along with who is going to advocate the strongest, it is Millennials for their diverse, technologically save, open minds. In 2012, 64 Million eligible voters were Millennials. By 2020, eligible Millennial voters will make up 39% of the polls. As the next generation of thinkers and doers, as the next generation of parents to children which our advocacy can change their education, it is vital to reflect on the sex ed we received to rally passion into our fight for change.

I can honestly say I feel my sexual education failed me. I made personal decisions without understanding the outcomes which is not all to blame on my schooling, but the what ifs conclude I lacked a major portion of sexual education. I became a mom a week before my 17th birthday. Completely by surprise. Which might seem strange since we all know where babies come from. But I say by surprise because I was not taught about contraceptives, healthy relationships with a parter or more importantly how to

My cool little human and I
Photo by L. Sanborn Photography

have a healthy relationship with myself. Most of what I remember about my health education was revolved around sun safety, drugs and alcohol, diabetes, and abstaining from sex. All of which was taught in 9th grade. I was no where near old enough to understand my thoughts, feelings, or body. By the time I reached 16, you could say it was all over. Because of lack of communication between myself and educators, I was completely unprepared for identifying when I was ready for sex which lead to risky behaviors and my daughter. I do not regret becoming a mother as my daughter is the coolest human on the planet! But I regret choices I made to harm my societally acceptance, self-esteem, and personal values. It feels easy to blame myself for what has happened in my life, as it should. I could have waited. I could have been more safe. I could have asked more questions about sex and sexual behaviors. But what I have reflected upon through education and personal realization, is that blame can be put on my educators and school programs. I did not ask questions. I did not know how to ask questions. I did not know how to access additional resources. I did not know how to talk to my mother about being sexually active. I did not know what I was even suppose to be worried about or inquisitive of.

Support for comprehensive education derives from medically accurate information, a need for age appropriate content, psychology, and notably from personal stories like mine.

Entitled to Education

Education is a human right to which we are entitled to. As children, our job is school. Children are entitled to education. Simple as pie. This entitled education includes math, science, reading, social studies. Each of those studies are comprehensive which makes it confusing why sexual education struggles to be the same. As adults, it is our job to nurture the youth as well as provide them with as much information as possible to guide them into becoming functioning members of society. We’ve learned so much about relationships, sexuality and sexual behavior simply from living so why are the government and schools still against it? Why are we not allowed to share learned experience and medically accurate, age appropriate information? The phrase “Learn from the past” is applicable and should be utilized in that it is fact humans are sexual beings, it is fact that we make mistakes, and it is fact that we have the ability to teach younger generations how to make safe choices to limit mistakes similar to ours.

The drive to change sexual education derives from adolescent desires to know more (Tolman & Mcclelland, 2011, p. 246), proven reduction in unplanned teenage pregnancies (Stanger-Hall & Hall, 2011, pg. 4), and the proven improvement of healthy relationships. All of which are proven support that abstinence education does not cause abstinent behavior. To inspire societal changes regarding sexuality and sexual education, we must look further into the facts, actively attempt to understand modern needs, and create inclusion for trust in youth. Speak up, speak often, and dismiss fear of the once taboo topic of sex. There should be nothing more taboo than withholding information that can empower youth to be responsible, respectful and educated. Comprehensive sexual education informs, protects, and empowers our youth and so can you.

 

Citations can be found HERE

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. This article is engaging because at no point do you disguise your investments. It reads not only as a presentation of research, but also as a plea for our society to catch up with its own reality. And I think by saving your own story until close to the end, you really build to a very effective moment of impact. And I love how you talk about having your daughter: there is no mistake in anything that led you to the beautiful kid you have and the truly sparkling person that you are because of the experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that your education failed to build your confidence, to help you figure out what you didn’t know, to develop a sense of agency and self-actualization in your life to guide you in decision making. At the root of so much of this is a real plea to treat adolescents with more respect, and to trust them more to do what’s best for them when they have all the information. I enjoyed reading this, as I knew I would. I look forward to being a reader of your work for years to come!

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