Let's talk about sex…maybe?
It would be pretty ideal, as the 1990s 'Salt-N-Pepa' ode to self-empowerment goes, if Americans could talk frankly and comprehensively about sex—but depending on where you live, the lesson may just be fire-and-brimstone warnings to stay "pure" as long as possible.
Although our education system has standardized testing and scoring for subjects such as English or Geometry, it has no over-arching mandate on who gets taught what in sex ed classes. In many states it's left up to individual school districts—and sometimes even decided through a school board meeting in which concerned parents can voice what they do and don't want taught in class.
Naturally, that leaves the door open to a whole host of agenda-driven input from a variety of sources—including religious institutions. It's not a coincidence that the states with the worst sex ed classes—where abstinence is stressed above all practical information that could help a hormone-filled teen avoid disease or pregnancy—tend to be rural, poor and red-leaning. Most are in the south, but not all—Alaska ranks among the worst offenders.
Texas is also a chart-topper, along with Arizona, which was actually ranked the worst sex ed state last year by health research site HealthGrove, which used Centers for Disease Control data. Arizona doesn't require teachers to give sex ed classes or educate kids on sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. But it does have a law that says any school that wishes to give these classes must keep it age appropriate and must stress abstinence—and parents must be notified, to give them a chance to have their child opt-out entirely.
Texas might have ranked even worse than Arizona—if researchers were able to find enough data to score it accurately. Roughly 60 percent of Texas public school districts taught abstinence-only sex ed, according to a study released last month from the Texas Freedom Network. And a quarter of Texas school districts taught no sex education at all. As you might expect, Texas also ranks 5th highest in the nation in teen birth rates, according to the CDC.
The state mandates that if sex ed classes are given, they be "age appropriate" and cover the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. What's age "appropriate," oddly, depends on where you live. State boards of education decide policy at the state level, but it falls to individual school districts pick the actual sex ed program they think is best suited to their students.
So, a middle school student would get less detailed information than a high school student, who might already be sexually active or becoming so in the near future. The supposition is, hopefully, that middle school students should know the body parts and basic anatomy involved, but don't yet need to have a full grasp of all the mechanics.
But what generally happens is that kids are told abstinence is the only "fool-proof" way to avoid an STD or pregnancy, said David Wiley, professor in the department of health and human performance of Texas State University, in his 2016 report on state sex ed, "Conspiracy of Silence."
"Programs often contain misinformation and outright lies," Wiley said. He cited one district that flat-out told teachers all classes must "support sexual abstinence… [as] the only effective way to prevent crisis pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases" and "present contraception as high-risk behavior." He also noted the teachers felt compelled to do so because they lived in "a conservative area."
Tennessee, ranked the fourth-worst, mandates sex education only if the pregnancy rate for 15- to 17-year-olds is at least 19.5 percent or higher across the state. And, like many other states, it doesn't require that sex ed curriculums include medically accurate information.
The misinformation—many would say outright propaganda—found in many sex ed classes is not limited to the south, however. Many states with more mandates are still giving teachers a pass on the validity of their content.
One Michigan mom, Alice Dreger, who happens to also be a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, found out just how terrible the instruction can be when she sat in on her son's high-school class (which the state does allow by law). She live-tweeted her shock and horror as the instructors alternately slut-shamed sexually active girls and warned of dire consequences for boys.
"I can't stand this … The whole lesson here is 'sex is part of a terrible lifestyle.' Drugs, unemployment, failure to finish school—sex is part of the disaster," Dreger tweeted from inside her son's East Lansing classroom.
But that wasn't even the worst that she heard from the male teacher. "You'll find a good girl. If you find one that says 'no,' that's the one you want." HE ACTUALLY JUST SAID THAT," Dreger wrote.
Then a woman teacher stepped in front of the kids to warn them that condoms fail so often they could all end up with babies even if they were careful. Her way of illustrating her point sent Dreger into a total meltdown. She rolled a dice eight times. When a student's number came up, she said to "pretend your condom failed" and gave them a paper baby.
At the end of the class Dreger tweeted, "I need a drink." As humorous as Dreger's reactions were, they brought home the significant and serious flaws in America's sex education system—such as it is. Out of 50 states, only 24 mandate sex education to prevent pregnancy and STDs—and two of those do not include HIV education in the curriculum. Only 13 states have a law requiring the information be medically accurate, and only two states specifically prohibit sex ed classes from promoting religion as part of the program. In 36 states, parents can remove their kids from the classes if they wish.
What's even crazier is that 39 states require abstinence be included—and 27 states mandate by law that is be stressed as the preferred choice. Only 20 states mandate that information on condoms and other forms of contraception be included.
Even in states where sex education could be considered fairly comprehensive—California and New York tend to rank among the best—it's still hard to say it's particularly good, especially when compared to youth sex ed in Europe. Kids there are taught the mechanics of sex early on, and methods to avoid pregnancy and disease are openly encouraged as well as readily available. In some places, Amsterdam for example, programs also include LGBTQ youth needs. This population is almost entirely overlooked in America's retrograde and patchwork approach.
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