In modern-day America, discussion of sex is simultaneously ubiquitous and avoided. We see that sex sells in Hollywood and popular literature, yet at the same time, the media heavily censors the topic. The result is widespread misunderstanding of sex and family planning, especially among high school students.
This misunderstanding proves an urgent issue. One in five women and one in sixteen men will experience sexual assault in college, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports. Perhaps if students received a more comprehensive education on sex, family planning, and related issues such as sexual violence before college, these statistics would be lower. During the family planning unit in health class, middle and high school students need to learn more than the horror of STIs; they need to learn how to practice mentally safe sex as well. They need to understand consent. They need to understand how to know when they are ready to have sex and how to ensure that they are on the same page as their partner. At the very least, health teachers should direct students to reliable sources such as Scarleteen that help people evaluate the physical, mental, and emotional implications of sex.
First, health teachers must not regard abstinence as the best option for all high school students. Unlike alcohol and drugs, consensual sex is legal for high schoolers. While I understand that high school teachers are obligated to tell students to avoid alcohol and drugs rather than to teach safe drinking habits, etc. health teachers should not face this obligation in the family planning unit. Instead, they should acknowledge that many high school students are sexually active (41% of high school students in 2015 had had sex before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
The MCPS middle school curriculum includes the objective “explain how abstinence is the most effective method” for seventh grade and “validate the reasons why abstinence from sexual activity is a healthy, safe, and responsible decision for adolescents.” The family planning units of my middle school health classes consisted mostly of videos that portrayed the struggles of teenagers–some of whom attempted to use reliable birth control–with STIs. Though my class was never explicitly told “do not have sex” in these videos, it seemed that the documentaries were simply meant to scare us into staying abstinent until at least after high school. One MCPS senior, Victoria Toth, reflected on a similar experience: “All I remember is learning about the risks of sex: STD’s, teenage pregnancies, etc.,” Toth said. “Basically the same scaring techniques they use when talking about drugs and alcohol.”
Additionally, health teachers must expand beyond disease prevention to teach about consent. MCPS senior Michaela Peterson commented, “I already knew the different types of STD’s and how to put a condom on. It would be better if the class focused on different ways to get out of situations you don’t want to be in–how to stand up for yourself and be safe.”
Another problem with the MCPS health system is the online health option. MCPS senior Alex Leipold, who fulfilled his health class credit online, reflected on the limited experience. “I hardly remember the sexual education unit in online health,” Leipold said. “I believe it occurred on the last day of the program, and the projector did not work. Our instructor rushed through a short summary and that was it.”
I fulfilled my health course requirement in school as a sophomore and my teacher skillfully integrated the topic of consent into the lesson plan. One time we engaged in a class discussion about when we would feel ready to have sex with a partner. In this discussion, the students who said they would feel ready after one date listened to the students who said they would feel ready after dating someone for at least one year. This type of activity fosters understanding of what sex means to different people. This understanding can work to decrease sexual violence rates.
In this health class, my teacher also told us the story of a friend who had been raped by a man with a gun. She explained how her friend survived and the process by which she reported the rape just after it occurred. My classmates and I found this lesson useful because it was personalized; it was not merely a video clip or textbook reading assignment
Unfortunately, MCPS does not guarantee health class experiences as valuable as mine. My teacher extended beyond the required curriculum to include our most useful discussions in the family planning unit. In fact, the MCPS curriculum tells teachers to “advocate for abstinence from sexual activity, including sexual intercourse, as the most effective and healthy means for preventing pregnancy and STIs.” Yes, complete abstinence is the most “effective” means of preventing pregnancy and STIs, but safe sex is in no way less “healthy” than abstinence. Health teachers should encourage teenagers to weigh the potential risks and benefits of sex to make the decision themselves. They should also acknowledge that partners who get checked for STIs and talk to a doctor about reliable birth control will successfully avoid pregnancy and STIs with very, very few exceptions. Planned Parenthood reports that condoms are 98% effective and birth control pills are 99% effective when used correctly. Therefore, the chance of getting pregnant is negligible for someone who uses condoms and birth control pills together.
In short, “endorse” should never be the action verb for a school system’s curriculum. Just as teachers avoid endorsing their religion or political ideology, they should avoid promoting their own or MCPS’s views on personal health decisions.
Knowledge of personal health is certainly just as important (if not more important) than knowledge of math and social studies. But few students take calculus and government classes online over the summer while many students fulfill their health credit online. MCPS teachers and students must treat health class, and the sexual education unit in particular, as one of the most important courses available for high schoolers.
Article by MoCo Student staff writer Zoe Nuechterlein of Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School