Thinking about sex education conjures up all sorts of uncomfortable moments when we (as teens) had to sit in health class and listen to our teacher talk about things that we whispered and joked about with friends but never thought to have a conversation about with an adult.
But things have changed a lot since then.
The average kid today is immersed in sexual imagery. Molly Masland, in her NBC news article, “Carnal knowledge: The sex ed debate,” says that a generation raised on music videos and the internet is familiar with the facts of life. These same teens are paying the price by contracting dangerous — and sometimes deadly — sexually transmitted diseases.
To boot, the United States has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world —almost twice as high as England and Canada, and eight times as high as the Netherlands and Japan. This adds urgency to the continuing debate over sex education.
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As a middle school teacher, the two most intriguing subjects I have taught have been on money and sex. Learning how the body works and how to use money wisely are two literacies that kids cannot afford to be without.
What good is being able to read if you can’t budget your expenses and end up riddled with debt? What good is being able to multiply if you get pregnant or acquire an STD in high school? While concerned businesses and financial institutions are pouring money to create school curriculums, sex education programs like Planned Parenthood are losing funding.
History of sex ed
In her New York Times Magazine article, “Teaching Good Sex,” Laurie Abraham recounts the history of sex education in America. Sexual activity was considered a social hygiene. It was thought that teaching people about the “proper uses of sexuality” would help stamp out venereal disease promote gender equality.
In 1940, the U.S. Public Health Service strongly advocated sex ed in schools and by the 1950s, the American Medical Association was on board.
The 1960s and 1970s ushered in feminism, the advent of the contraceptive pill and a generational rebellion. With these, also came the idea that sex didn’t have to be confined to marriage. During the 1970s and early 1980s, it was thought that a comprehensive sex education would be the best response to the increasing teenage pregnancy rates and the arrival of HIV/AIDS. By the 1980s, sex ed emphasized not only reproduction, but also the importance of self-esteem, responsibility and decision making.
The AIDS epidemic irrevocably changed sex ed. In 1986, U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop issued a report calling for comprehensive AIDS and sexuality education in public schools, beginning as early as the third grade. It was felt that the need for sex ed was not only critical, it needed to include information on heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
Yet by the end of the 1980s, a wedge was driven through sex ed. Conservative Christian groups demanded an option for abstinence only instruction (which prohibited the instruction of any other topics) — as they likened sex ed to teaching sex.
In schools today, the approach varies between states.
Why teach sex ed in school? We teach kids skills like how to tie shoes, how to drive cars and how to interact with others so that they will be able to maneuver smoothly as they mature into adults. But because we are uncomfortable with the topic of sex, we have allowed our ignorance to undermine what the statistics continue to remind us that kids are and will be sexually active and they are sexually illiterate.
▪ Immaturity: In her CBS News article, “Teens Tell Truth About Sex,” Sabrina Weill says that as the life of a teen gets more complicated, the stakes get higher: heartbreak, STDs and pregnancy become immediate risks. Developmentally, teens are pulling away from the adults in their lives, but at the same time, most do not have the maturity or sophistication to make life-changing decisions regarding sex without the input of an older, wiser adult.
▪ Reality: A 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey indicates that more than 47% of all high school students say they have had sex, and 15% of high school students have had sex with four or more partners.
▪ Consequences: Sexual activity has serious consequences. The U.S. has the highest teen birth rate in the industrialized world. Roughly one in four girls will become pregnant at least once by their 20th birthday. Teenage mothers are less likely to finish high school and are more likely than their peers to live in poverty, depend on public assistance and be in poor health. Their children are more likely to suffer health and cognitive disadvantages, come in contact with the child welfare and correctional systems, live in poverty, drop out of high school and become teen parents themselves. Teen childbearing costs taxpayers at least $9.4 billion annually.
▪ STIs: Adolescents are disproportionately affected by sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Young people ages 15 to 24 represent 25% of the sexually active population, but acquire half of all new STIs, which amounts to 9.8 million new cases a year.
Florida and Sex Education
Levels of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies in Florida continue to rise. The state ranks second in the nation in terms of annual incident HIV infections. And each year, new cases of STDs cost nearly $16 billion in direct medical costs.
A University of Florida article, “Sex Education in Florida Schools Varies Widely, Not Available to All Students,” reported on the inconsistencies of Florida public schools’ sex education programs. Florida is technically one of 23 states that require schools to teach the prevention of STIs, the benefits of sexual abstinence and the consequences of teen pregnancy. Yet it remains unclear whether scientifically accurate and comprehensive information is actually being presented to students. Since there are no requirements or standards for the course content, there is little known about what topics are actually covered.
Teaching Sex Ed
Sex education requires a special teacher and a proper decorum. A sex ed teacher needs to be comfortable and knowledgeable with the subject matter, and more importantly be able to approach it with teens. Herein lies the problem of sex ed. It can be mandated but most teachers are simply not comfortable teaching it, so the kids don’t get the information they need.
A sex ed curriculum should include finding out what students already know and adding to their existing knowledge and correcting any misinformation they may have. Kids may have heard that condoms are not effective against HIV or that there is a cure for AIDS, so it’s important to provide information to correct mistaken beliefs. Inaccurate information puts kids at greater risk.
Change is hard
Soaring rates of sexually transmitted diseases among teens has adding urgency to the debate over sex education. Caught in the middle are America’s kids, who are more vulnerable than ever to potentially deadly diseases.
Half of U.S. states require that abstinence-only be stressed. There are generations of people who are not comfortable with their own sexuality —and that extends to parents and teachers.
In other places, the tide is shifting toward an approach closer to that of the Dutch. Two of the largest school districts in the country — Chicago Public Schools and Florida’s Broward County — have recently mandated sex education for elementary school students. In 2014, schools in Broward County began teaching sex education at least once a year in every grade, and the curriculum includes information about topics like body image, sexting and social media.
Although training is available, not everyone is comfortable nor agrees with the subject, and not everyone is comfortable explaining it in a room full of hormonally charged teens. Year after year, the questions I get from kids in my class are straight on and high powered. I am happy that I was there to explain the answer to each one of them. Someone has to.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.