When I was in school in Wisconsin, sex education was a necessary part of the sixth- and ninth-grade health curricula. The education I received, though lacking in some respects, was comprehensive enough to teach me how to be STI- and pregnancy-free through my teenage years.
There were aspects of my sex education that weren’t perfect — no one talked about queer sex, and abstinence was definitely pushed as a “best practice” — but considering community standards, the program was sound.
The lack of education about queer sexualities was neglectful and certainly put me at a disadvantage as a queer woman, but we weren’t barred from talking about them, and our teachers weren’t either.
Recently, however, conservative legislators across America, including Gov. Scott Walker of my home state, have rolled out some disturbing plans to repeal comprehensive sex education standards and revert to abstinence-only programs. This would put thousands of teenagers at risk.
Also disturbing are policies such as the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” policy in the nearby Anoka-Hennepin school district, which bans all talk of queer sexualities between students and educators. These restrictive policies do more than disadvantage students. They outright harm them.
Teenagers have always engaged in sexual behavior, and it’s not abnormal for a high school student to have questions about sexuality. Many teens don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents about their sex lives, and educators, particularly sex educators, are a logical place to turn for answers.
Teens are not going to stop having sex just because their health teachers don’t talk about how to do it safely. If students aren’t taught how to put a condom on a banana in a classroom full of snickering peers, how likely is it that they’ll be able to effectively use one with the promise of lusty intercourse dangling between their legs?
If a young man struggling to reconcile his queer identity with the homophobic bullying of his classmates isn’t able to bring his concerns to a school administrator or trusted teacher, where is he supposed to turn? What happens when it gets to be too much and there is no recourse through the school system? If the nine student suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin district tell us anything, the answer isn’t pretty.
Sexual curiosity shouldn’t be stifled, especially in a forum for education. For most, having sex is part of being human and part of growing up. Our education systems are in place to prepare America’s youth for adulthood, to give them the skills and knowledge that they need to thrive in the world. But if a herpes outbreak is thriving instead, what chance does a student have to concentrate on their goals? If daily harassment is making a student depressed, what does that mean for the quality of his or her education?
Legislators who push abstinence-only programs have consistently used the rationale that teaching students about safe sex only encourages promiscuous behavior among teenagers. However, in states where abstinence-only education is the standard, rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are extremely high.
Walker’s recently unveiled repeal effort, which would strike down portions of Wisconsin’s Healthy Youth Act that mandate comprehensive sex education in public institutions, calls for the erasure of such programs and would allow them to be replaced with an abstinence-only curriculum. Similar efforts have been made in states such as Texas, where Rick Perry continues to push abstinence-only programs despite the state having one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country.
Many conservative legislators also use the argument that parents should be the ones to teach their children about sex and sexuality in whatever manner they see fit. However, if all parents were really doing an adequate job of this, we would see a decrease in teen pregnancy and STI rates across the country. Additionally, this would still offer little recourse for students facing sexual or sexuality-based harassment.
There is, of course, also a religious component to the argument — the belief in abstinence until marriage as a Christian moral that should be instilled in all of the country’s youth. But we need to face the facts: America is not, and should not, be recognized as an institutionally Christian nation, and our founding documents necessitate a separation of church and state as well as freedom of religion.
It should be obvious that shying away from sex and sexuality in schools is not keeping teenagers safe. If the goal is to reduce teen pregnancies, STIs and bullying-related suicides, then an open discourse about sexuality is absolutely necessary.
We need to see more legislation like the Healthy Youth Act and the repeal of “Don’t Say Gay” policies. We need to see stronger anti-bullying and hate crime laws. Most of all, we need to stop pretending that the silence of educators will stop teens from having sex or being queer, and we need to stop shaming and punishing students for a natural, healthy sexual curiosity.
It will not be abstinence-only sex education programs, anti-gay policies, parents or Christianity that decreases our nation’s rates of teenage pregnancy, STIs or LGBT suicides. It will be comprehensive sex education that teaches both queer and heterosexual students how to have sex and express their orientation safely and without shame.
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