Let’s Get Real

When I look back at what I learned in school and how much of it was actually useful, sadly not enough was. Unfortunately I had to learn some things in very hard ways; situations I feel could have been easily avoided if relevant topics were addressed in my formal education.  I spent close to 18 years in school. I thought and had hoped they were covering topics related to what I would experience in life but it turned out this was not the case.  Instruction of proper contraceptive use and open conversations around sexuality, healthy relationships, and family planning would have catered to my needs much more than the discussions of symbolism in classic literature, the integration of functions, and other abstract topics that made up my education.

I am not the only one who feels this way.  As a health educator who teaches adults about safe      sex, usually decades after they started having it, without fail someone in every class exclaims “I wish I learned this in high school. This is actually useful. I had no idea that_____.”  I can’t tell you how often I leave presentations mortified after someone tells me they genuinely believed using two condoms offered them more protection or reusing them was a safe way to reduce waste.

I know what you may be thinking, this is only the case where you work.  As much as I wish that were true, it is not.  This week an MSNBC article reaffirmed the widespread deficiency in  knowledge around proper condom use among adults in our country.  What’s scary is that this information gap oftentimes leads to dangerous contraception failure (breaks/tears) that increases the risk of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections exponentially (and this is for people who use condoms at all, which I can also attest from the conversations I have had at work, is not the norm).

As upsetting as this is, I cannot say I am surprised, because approximately one third of sex education in the United States does not cover contraceptives.  Instead of leading the world in the number of students excelling in math and science; we are beating the rest of the developed world in unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted infections among youth and our approach to sexuality is the reason behind this alarming trend.

The push to eliminate sex education in schools this week in Utah makes me think public officials are either insane, trapped in a bubble, and/or just care a lot less about their constituents than their own “morals” (I use the term morals loosely).  My guess it is all of the above.

Utah Representative Bill Wright had the following to say:

“We’ve been culturally watered down to think we have to teach about sex, about having sex and how to get away with it, which is intellectually dishonest….Why don’t we just be honest with them upfront that sex outside marriage is devastating?”

Well my response to Representative Wright and the others that allowed such a harmful bill to pass is that such a disconnection from reality is what I, and many others, define as devastating.  Changing the bill from not allowing the advocacy of contraceptive use to prohibiting instruction around contraception and eliminating sex education entirely in most cases shows that they have just decided to ignore volumes of scientific research.  They are setting the youth of Utah up for failure.  Sex outside of marriage, although not ideal for all and difficult for many, happens and we need to prepare students to make these decisions on their own and in a safe way.

No abstinence-only program has yet been proven through rigorous evaluation to help youth delay sex for a significant period of time, lead to a decrease in the number of sex partners, or reduce STI or pregnancy rates among teens.  In fact all of these positive outcomes have only been linked to comprehensive sex education. In Europe, where they have the same rates of sexual activity among adolescents, there are much lower rates of negative outcomes because their open approach to sexuality actually results in informed decision making and correct contraceptive use.

Although Utah’s rates of teen pregnancy are low compared to the national average, they are on the rise….and that was before this legislation was passed.  Nationally, youth ages 15–24-year-olds disproportionately account for half of all new STI cases each year totaling 9.1 million. The individual is not the only one who suffers.  This has large societal costs from pressure on the health care system to infertility and birth defects.

As a Nation, we need to just accept the fact that people have sex.  Most of it is happening before marriage and a lot of times outside of marriage (In fact some of the strongest advocates for “Family Values” like Newt Gingrich are a perfect example of this occurrence).

Seven out of ten teens do so before their 19th birthday.   Not talking about it in schools does not prevent it from happening, it only ensures that it happens in much riskier ways.  We are not teaching students how to make informed decisions about their sexuality, such as whether or not they want to have sex at that moment, with that partner or in that context and if they are, how they can protect themselves.  We should get real and teach them life skills that actually matter, preparing them to succeed, which I was under the impression was the purpose of education in the first place.

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About Alyssa

Alyssa is a public health professional working at a public health non-profit in Washington DC. Previously, she worked as a shift manager on the online national sexual assault hotline and was a health educator at a community clinic in San Diego County where she focused primarily on reproductive health such as family planning and STI prevention. She received her BA in International Studies-Political Science with a minor in Sociology from the University of California, San Diego. In between her formal education she circumnavigated the globe on Semester at Sea, lived in Spain, and worked on a Community Development project in rural Kenya (Kakamega represent).

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