Students raise questions about current sex education program
By Sari Royer, ’16 and Jenny Jiao, ’16
It’s certainly the most awkward week of health class, and usually the most colorful as well. The week that makes you regret waiting until senior year to take health as the sole upperclassman in a class of immature freshmen. The week that students wince as they see overly vivid diagrams and squirm as they hear stories from their health teacher that are a bit too personal. It’s sex ed week.
Currently, the state of Ohio does not require schools to teach sex education. However, it does require each school district’s board to set a health curriculum for all schools under its supervision that includes information about STDs and HIV/AIDS, according to the National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education.
Ohio’s mandate states that curriculums must make clear that “abstinence from sexual activity is the only protection that is 100 percent effective against unwanted pregnancy, STDs, and the sexual transmission of a virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.” Additionally, the curriculum must “stress that students should abstain from sexual activity until after marriage.”
Of the 37 states that require sexual education including abstinence, 26 states plus the District of Columbia have a curriculum requirement for STD and HIV/AIDS material that “stresses abstinence,” while 11 simply require that abstinence be included as part of the instruction.
Health teacher Stacey Hoover regularly teaches sex education as a part of the health curriculum and said UAHS’ material does adhere to Ohio’s state standard.
“By law, abstinence [education] is what our school districts have accepted as practice,” Hoover said.
However, Upper Arlington’s curriculum also educates students about a variety of other material concerning sex.
“[We teach] everything from female reproduction and male reproduction, menstrual cycle, child development, pregnancy to healthy and unhealthy relationships and marriage commitment,” Hoover said.
Furthermore, UAHS’s current curriculum includes information about contraception, as opposed to an abstinence-only program.
“We stress that abstinence is the most important way to stay 100 percent safe,” Hoover said. “[But] we do elaborate on birth controls, the dangers and the effectiveness of [them].”
Hoover believes the current program balances teaching of abstinence and safe sexual practices. However, she states that the objective of the program is to keep students abstinent.
“Our main goal is that our students are 100 percent safe, which means they would have to be abstinent,” Hoover said.
Junior Erica Hartmus was a student in Hoover’s wellness class during her freshman year and recalls her experience.
“I learned scientific information about sexual reproduction, STDs, HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, abstinence and some birth control,” Hartmus said. “The school seemed to focus more on abstinence and it cast a somewhat negative light on having sex.”
Hoover elaborates that the material is largely scientific and factual to equip students with the information needed to make a decision about engaging in sexual practices. She said that teachers’ personal experiences are also used as a learning tool.
“[The factual material is] mixed with health teachers’ personal stories or things that we’ve experienced growing up and being a teenager,” Hoover said.
However, Hartmus finds usage of a teacher’s personal anecdotes and ideology creates bias in the classroom environment.
“Many of the stories we heard were about abstinence and waiting,” Hartmus said. “It was helpful to hear about that decision, but we didn’t see the other side, the not-waiting side, as much, which I felt was bias since most people don’t wait nowadays.”
Hartmus does note that Hoover taught about contraception more than other teachers she is familiar with.
“We had a speaker, Molly Woo, who did speak about having sex before marriage and the emotional consequences of it,” Hartmus said.
Although the curriculum covers a wide range of topics concerning sexual intercourse and its implications, the effectiveness of the program in educating students and influencing their judgements is contested.
Hoover said the information is given to the student and the decision to or not to engage in sexual practices, safe or not, is ultimately up to them.
“We talk about it to their faces in a classroom,” Hoover said. “But I also think teen[agers], just like with drugs and alcohol, are going to make their own choice.”
She elaborates on the importance of having that background information.
“What’s nice is if they’re going to make their own choice, they are armed and ready with information that says ‘if you make this decision, there can be very high consequences,’” Hoover said. “That’s the
difference. Our kids listen. Some do a really good job with it; some make a rather large mistake. But going into [the decision], they know the possibilities and what the outcome might be.”
School counselor Allen Banks agrees that the curriculum has impacted students’ abilities to make conscious and safe decisions.
“[A student] might not be thinking about [what they learned] when they’re having a relationship with someone,” Banks said. “But I think just having that information in the back of their mind that they can draw from is super important.”
In fact, Banks believes the current program is successful in stressing abstinence for students.
“Had we not taught abstinence, I would say there would be an increase in sexual activity,” Banks said.
But, according to statistics, many students are not practicing abstinence.
A survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 47 percent of all high school students say they have had sex while, 15 percent say they have had sex with four or more partners during high school.
Hartmus agrees that the teaching of abstinence is unrealistic, and that most of the information she has learned about sex and contraception was not learned in a classroom but rather through real world experience.
“Having friends who have had sexual experiences, their emotional consequences and watching TV or other types of media have really taught me, the majority of what I know about sex and [how] to make a decision about sex,” Hartmus said.
According to Hoover, the school curriculum teaches about the physical effects of having sex and sexual and healthy relationships but Hartmus does not agree that it teaches the emotional consequences of having sex as well.
“If you have sex with someone that you aren’t necessarily good friends with or dating, you can form a bond with them that’s very different from any other type of relationship,” Hartmus said.“I would have never learned this in the sex ed curriculum; they don’t talk about actual experiences or what people may feel. In the classroom, it’s much more straightforward like this is black and white, STDs, effects of those STDs, but there’s so much more to sex and the various ways to encounter sex that the school doesn’t touch upon.”
In states that have abstinence based curriculums, only 60 percent reported condom use and 23 percent reported birth control pill use.
Sexual activity and unprotected sex do have consequences. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, the United States has the highest teen birth rate in the industrialized world. Three out of ten girls will become pregnant before their 20th birthday.
Adolescents also make up about 25 percent of the populations that is affected by sexually transmitted infections. There are 9.8 million cases of new STDs every year reported for young people with human papillomavirus being the most common among teens; some estimates find that up to 35 percent of teens engaged in sexual activity ages 14 to 19 have HPV.
Although sex education is being taught in school, parent of a UAHS student Barbara Reed believes that parents should supplement the information that teens are being taught in the classroom.
She has had discussions with her children about choices and repercussions but also taught them that there are other ways to avoid teen pregnancy other than abstinence.
Despite the fact that some families may not be as open to talking about sex, Reed states that every parent should play a role in educating their children about contraception, sex and abstinence.
Banks agrees, that even though the conversation may be uncomfortable it is necessary and that children can learn from their parents and families.
“[When] kids grow up in a solid family that is together with a mom, dad and kids they see the value of a family that was started and was planned,” Banks said. “Kids get that, they see that their parents have been together and that they or their sister or brother was planned and it speaks volumes.”
Although both Reed and Banks believe a parent-child conversation is of the utmost importance, Hoover said this isn’t happening in the majority of homes.
“I don’t think parents are really talking about it,” Hoover said. “And I don’t say that as a stereotype; there are some parents who are open to convers[ing] but, on the norm, most of them are uncomfortable.”
Hoover said the hesitation of initiating a conversation may be due to parents’ lack of accurate and timely information.
“I think a lot of parents have been out of the loop for awhile and they don’t really get what’s going on especially with sexually transmitted diseases, what’s out there [and] some of these shots the girls are supposed to be getting,” Hoover said. “So I don’t think parents really know enough to have a conversation about it.”
She also attributes this leniency with having an in-depth conversation with the sufficiency of the school curriculum.
“[Parents are] so thankful that the school takes care of it because they would rather leave this on the school,” Hoover said.
Banks said families should continue to reinforce ideas presented in the classroom at home.
Hoover agrees that parents still should play a crucial role in their child’s sex education.
“I think a parent knows their child much more than a teacher [does],” Hoover said.
However, parents are relatively uninformed about the content of the sex education curriculum and the details of what their children are being taught in school.
The Hartmus and the Reed families said they have never received information about the material taught, and thus struggle to continue the conversation at home.
Banks also believes the majority of parents are clueless as to what their children are learning, unless the students themselves are informing them.
Hartmus, Reed and Banks all agree there is room for improvement.
“Our sex ed program is better than some others…,” Hartmus said. “…but there’s still a lot to improve on.”
Image caption: A female student shops for difference types of contraception and pregnancy tests. She is indecisive because of her limited knowledge of the various contraceptive devices.
Photo illustration by Sasha Dubson