We Don’t Need No (Sex)Education

by Cara on February 28, 2008

in education and schools, religious fanaticism, reproductive justice, sex and sexuality, social conservatives, women’s health

Here’s a shocker: the teachers who are forced to act as puppets for the “if you lie enough times it will become true” abstinence-only brigade haven’t got the slightest clue what they’re doing. How many of you received this kind of “education” and got precisely that impression?

A sizable minority of sex education teachers does not cover all of the basics, and many lack training to teach sex ed at all, a survey of teachers in one state suggests.

In a study of sex ed teachers at 201 Illinois schools, researchers found that one-third of teachers did not give comprehensive instruction — defined as covering the four basic topics of abstinence, birth control, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

In addition, 30 percent said they had no special training in teaching sex education, and these teachers were less likely to teach a comprehensive course.

“For this study, we set the bar for comprehensiveness fairly low relative to what most medical and public health organizations recommend,” lead researcher Dr. Stacy Tessler Lindau said in a statement, “and one out of three programs failed to clear it.”

[. . .]

The study involved 335 sex ed teachers at Illinois middle schools and high schools. Lindau and her colleagues defined “comprehensive sex education” as courses teaching both abstinence and contraception, as well as information on HIV and other STDs.

They left out a fifth, more controversial topic often recommended by public health experts: giving students information on where to go for sexual health services, condoms and birth control.

Overall, two-thirds of teachers met this more relaxed definition of comprehensive education. In general, the most frequently covered topics were HIV and STDs, which about 96 percent of teachers said they addressed. Eighty-nine percent of teachers covered the topic of abstinence-until-marriage.

Among the least frequently taught subjects were homosexuality, abortion and information on how to use condoms or birth control properly.

[. . .]

When it came to discussing condoms and birth control, teachers who omitted the topic generally did so because it was not in the official curriculum or because of “school or district policy.” About half of teachers also lacked confidence in their ability to teach the topic — rating their ability as anywhere from “average” to “very poor.”

Well Christ, if I was forced to teach a room full of teenagers on a subject they will have dire interest in without any training, the expectation that I’ll going to lie, and a whole bunch of questions I can’t or am not allowed to answer, I wouldn’t feel so confident either.

Here’s what I find to be most scary: learning how to use condoms and birth control properly were among the least taught subjects, up there with the two most notoriously (and ridiculously) taboo sex ed topics of abortion and homosexuality. But the study says that two-thirds of the teachers met this very relaxed definition of “comprehensive” sex ed, including the teaching of contraception. I doubt that teachers who aren’t allowed to talk about condoms are allowed to talk about abortion. I also doubt that every teacher who discussed birth control also did discuss homosexuality and abortion.

So what gives? Well, the Yahoo! article could be reporting something incorrectly. But let’s assume for a moment that their representation is accurate. It says that the definition of comprehensive sex ed requires “covering” the issue of birth control. Not teaching how to use it properly. Just “covering” it.

Surely, it could be ambiguous reporting. But it also seems from the author’s comments that the study was largely based on self-reporting. Could it be that the two-thirds statistic is including those programs that teach how condoms don’t work, you’ll get HIV if you use the pill because it doesn’t protect against STDs, but using a condom is still useless? I don’t know; it’s certainly the impression I get, but I searched through the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology’s archives and couldn’t find this study. (Maybe the issue hasn’t been released yet, but if anyone else does happen to come across the study, I’d be interested in reading it.)

To tell the kind of lies above, though, you don’t really need any special training — unless of course there is a training program that teaches how to effectively ignore your conscience and not look like you’re drowning in guilt while telling high school kids that the birth control method you’ve personally used effectively for years doesn’t work at all. Hey, I understand why teachers in this position do what they do — even if they believe in comprehensive sex ed, they have a school board to answer to, and despite how underpaid they are they probably still like having a job. In some cases, I think that teachers are a big part of the problem. But more often than not, the blame lays at the feet of the school board who is too chickenshit to stand up to the few prudish and bigoted hand-wringing evangelical parents who make a loud fuss, while completely ignoring the wider population of rational parents who expect sex education to actually educate their kids about sex.

The researchers are absolutely correct when they say that the definition they used to define “comprehensive sex ed” is exceedingly lax. In addition to omitting the topic of where to get sexual health services (um, isn’t that arguably the most important one?), they also mention no requirements that schools talk about sexual orientation and non-hetero sex or that they discuss any sex other than penis-in-vagina. Not teaching kids about sexual orientation and gay and lesbian sex is prejudiced and cruel. Not teaching kids about how they can still get STDs from oral and anal sex — and potentially even pregnant from anal without protection (use your imagination) — is downright dangerous.

And as always, I personally advocate and cringe over the lack of the additional categories of pleasure and consent. No, I’m not saying that I expect the health teacher to go into advanced sexual techniques, but teaching high school students about the clitoris and how sex if sex isn’t be enjoyed by both partners, it shouldn’t be happening? Yeah, I think that’s pretty fucking big. And consent is about a hell of a lot more than “no means no;” it’s about being able to negotiate sexual activity as a continuous process. It’s vital for kids (and adults) to know that saying “yes” to one act doesn’t mean saying yes to all others, that it’s okay to set boundaries, request what you like, refuse what makes you uncomfortable and that you must be able to accept those types of decisions by your partner.

But yeah, I know, I’m a liberal feminist Planned Parenthood-loving crazy person who doesn’t think that sex is gross and evil. I don’t expect most school boards to be taking my (highly practical) advice anytime soon. But at this point I’ll settle for actually teaching about proper use of contraception for all sexual acts. And that battle is hard enough.

But for those parents of teenagers out there who don’t hate their kids, actually want them to be safe and have satisfying and healthy relationships, I highly recommend the Planned Parenthood site Teenwire. I’ve recently been using it a lot for my writing’s with PP, and though it hasn’t taught me anything new, it is quite the treasure trove of honest information and non-condescending advice on every sex and relationship topic you can imagine. I’ve found articles on sexual assault, female orgasms, circumcised versus uncircumcised penises, coming out of the closet and public hair, to give you a quick idea of the breadth. Check it out and see what most kids are missing.

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{ 10 comments }

1 annajcook February 28, 2008 at 2:10 pm

up there with the two most notoriously (and ridiculously) taboo sex ed topics of abortion and homosexuality

you forgot to mention “safest sex”–as in masturbation :).

2 Cara February 28, 2008 at 2:12 pm

Ooh, you’re right! The article didn’t even mention masturbation — honestly, I’d be surprised if the study even asked the question about it being taught.

3 Moody February 28, 2008 at 4:54 pm

My daughter will be going through the sex ed course in a couple of years. She’s in 3rd grade now. Since we’re living in Southern KY, I’m worried about the “education” she’ll be getting.
We plan on giving her the “It’s Perfectly Normal” book, and direct her to the teenwire website when she’s old enough. (I’ve checked it out, it gets the thumbs up from me.)
I still worry about the other kids in her class that will likely receive limited and filtered sex-ed.

4 Ellie February 28, 2008 at 7:28 pm

I’ll be having sex ed later this semester. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to keep my mouth shut while listening to lies like that. Actually, I’m considering printing off studies and waving them at the teachers whenever they get to the ‘condoms don’t work and you can get AIDS from skin contact’ section.

I just worry that some of the kids will actually buy into this crap.

5 Feminist Avatar February 29, 2008 at 7:04 am

The irony is that teenagers come up with their own definitions of what is and isn’t sex based on this lack of information. I know when I was a teenager most teenagers didn’t count mutual masterbation or oral sex as SEX. As we all were taught, sex has to involve vaginas and penises connecting. The result being that people did not use contraception/protection for non-vaginal sex, because they didn’t see what they were doing as sex.

6 Feminist Avatar February 29, 2008 at 7:05 am

And to add to the above, they still counted themselves as virgins even if they had done everything short of penetration, so they could hand on heart promise abstinence.

7 Jenee February 29, 2008 at 6:26 pm

When I was in health class, in Illinois actually, we did cover the concept of consent in our sex education (don’t start clapping yet, though).

We watched this video in which a girl goes on a date with some popular, attractive guy and he takes her to some abandoned warehouse or something and forces himself upon her as she struggles and says “no” over and over. At the end of the video, we were asked to raise our hands to say whether or not what we had seen should be considered rape. One kid (or maybe one more, it’s been several years) raised their hands saying that the had not thought it was rape. I got all pissed off, of course, and demanded that they justify that what they’d witnessed did not show she did not consent. Then, unbelievably, the teacher chastised me for not being tolerant of other people’s opinions! I continued to try to protest, but I was shushed.

Given the scenes involving the aftermath of the girl’s rape – her crying in a shower after she got home with all of her clothes on, and the girl’s brother not believing her because the popular guy told everyone that she wanted it. In the end she confronts him at school and says outright “You raped me.” I don’t think that the actions of my teacher were what the video was intending to elicit.

Even when they do cover the ideas of consent and rape, it doesn’t mean they’re doing anything to help clarify the idea.

8 Cara February 29, 2008 at 6:39 pm

Jenee, that . . . is absolutely appalling. I don’t even have the words. Just wondering: was the teacher male or female? (Horrible and possible either way, I’m just curious.)

9 Jenee March 3, 2008 at 7:09 pm

The teacher was male. But he was the “cool” health teacher that everyone really, really liked (except me).

10 Cara March 3, 2008 at 9:22 pm

I guess the only good part is that you knew which kid to never, ever date . . . the bad part is that not everyone else in the world got the same information. Which is why what the teacher did was so appalling, of course. There aren’t a whole lot of great “teaching moments” in life to explain what rape is. To pass it up and outright condone the opinion that rape is not rape . . . it seems to me that it’s just kind of setting up the kid with that opinion to be a rapist (or if female, to defend rape). (And this would be the “rape culture” I’m always going on about.)

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