By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita
Sex education—the most dreaded section of health class, filled with giggles, flushed cheeks, and uncomfortable teachers. It’s also one of the most important subjects taught in school, and one of the most contested. Sex is prevalent in American high schools; the CDC reported in 2013 that 47% of high school students surveyed have had sex, 34% have had sex within the last three months, and 41% hadn’t used a condom. While teen pregnancy is the lowest it’s been since the beginning of the data collection, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are still a major threat to health that can have lasting consequences. Girls in particular are often hit the hardest with the effects of teen sex, pointing to the need for quality sex education.
But all sex education was not created equal. I was lucky enough to be educated in a state that mandates comprehensive sex education. Comprehensive sex education teaches students “anatomy, physiology, families, personal safety, healthy relationships, pregnancy and birth, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, contraceptives, sexual orientation, pregnancy options, media literacy and more.” I think it’s important to note that the information we were taught was age-appropriate, which is often a concern of critics. Elementary school consisted of basic anatomy, and for girls (I can’t comment on the boys as we were separated by gender) that included menstruation, and an introduction to sex, pregnancy, and STIs. We didn’t delve into the details of sexual intercourse and contraceptives until middle school. By the time I was in high school, I had a good understanding of the many layers of a responsible and healthy sex life, with at least a basic understanding of the risks. I also grew up in a family that encouraged open dialogue. My mom worked as a research nurse in HIV/AIDS, and so I was raised fully aware of not only what could happen due to unsafe sex, but also the importance of responsibility and protection. I was encouraged to ask questions about my body, and was readily supplied with answers and supplemental reading materials (shout-out to the American Girl book The Care and Keeping of You).
Many high school students, however, are not given such a well-rounded education on their bodies or sexual health. This is a detriment to their health and others. The CDC recommends a comprehensive education. While they officially state that abstinence is the only birth control and STI preventer that is 100% effective, they also address the importance of condoms and other forms of birth control in a healthy sex life. According to the CDC, approximately 23% of students in the US are taught abstinence-only sex education, which is problematic. National studies have shown that there is a positive correlation between abstinence-only sex education and teen pregnancy and birth rates. This correlation really isn’t surprising; keeping a population ignorant of their options won’t prevent them from having sex, it will just keep them from having safe sex.
Teenage girls are especially harmed by a lack of quality sex education. When teen pregnancy occurs, girls are left with the brunt of the burden. This can derail their education and, depending on their family’s ability to offer financial support, can mean the end to their formal schooling. Studies also show a negative correlation between median household income and abstinence-only education, meaning lower-income states have higher rates of teen pregnancy. This is noteworthy, because a lack of quality sex education and higher rates of teen pregnancy are disproportionally affecting the girls and families in situations least financially capable of handling it. Pregnancy is not the only consequence of a lack of quality sex education. Nearly 10,000 young people were diagnosed with HIV in 2013, and according to the same CDC survey, nearly 10 million of the new STIs were among young people. STIs, particularly HIV, have lasting consequences that can ultimately include death.
While comprehensive sex education is not going to prevent all teen pregnancies and STIs, it’s a good start. Young people need to be educated on their bodies and sexual health in order to live healthy, responsible lives. Withholding information, such information on contraceptives, is irresponsible of us as a society, and a disservice to the millions of students who rely on schools to give them the education they aren’t provided at home. Want my advice? Open up the conversation with your children, friends, significant others and sexual partners. Talk about your body, your needs, and what you can do to live a healthy sex life, whether that is abstinence or safe sexual practices. We only have one body and one life, so let’s do our best to take care of them.