Changing sex education after elimination of abstinence programs

BROOKE HENDERSON

An egg. A doll. A diagram. Sex education comes in many different forms, but no program with an abstinence-only curriculum has impacted sexual health in the United States positively.

Government regulation Title V expresses the goals of abstinence-only programs. Funding would only be given to programs that promote the benefits of abstaining from sex, teach that sex within marriage is the standard, and that abstinence is the only way to avoid unwanted pregnancy, to name a few.

These goals do not actually inform students how to have sex safely, which is why many programs have been defunded. Now programs in the united states are adjusting to provide mor comprehensive sex education.

Students at the University of Florida passionate about sexual health are starting to challenge this lack of information through on campus and local organizations. And to be most effective, these students need to have an understanding of what is currently happening in schools.To combat the continued lack of information present in abstinence-only curriculums, students first need to understand why states chose to impliment them.

It started with a desire to promote Christian rhetoric regarding sexual activity, which is that sex outside of marriage is a sin. To add additional justification for this belief, researchers studied the behavior of teens in the hopes of finding supporting facts.

But while the abstinence-only curriculum aims to prevent things like high STD rates and unwanted pregnancy, the research conducted showed that it method is ineffective.  

Douglas Kirby was Director of Research at Education, Training and Research Associates based in Scotts Valley, California. In the field of sex education, he was a pioneer in identifying the key features of effective sex education.While examining studies on pregnancy prevention programs for the National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, he found that abstinence education did not lower the rates of sexually transmitted diseases, or the unwanted teen pregnancy.

In reality, he found that sex education actually reduces the average number of sexual partners. It also raises the age at which people become sexually active.

Naomi Ardjomand-Kermani is making strides in Alachua county to change that. Naomi, who identifies as queer and chooses to use the personal pronoun they or them, is the associate planner for the WellFlorida Council, a local network of nonprofit health agencies aiming to improve health. The network provides services ranging from HIV/ AIDS prevention to maternity care.

Ardjomand-Kermani is especially passionate about school sex education because of the misconceptions regarding abstinence programs. On October 19, they came to UF for a discussion called “Queering Sex Ed” where they addressed the way current sex education fails with college students.

They find that the current curriculum falls short in being real and honest with students. Because teachers themselves are uncomfortable with the material and the perspective is technical and preventative instead of educational students do not get the information they need to be safe.

“I’ve talked to schools in the county, but it’s [sex education] not really being welcomed,” Ardjomand-Kermani said. “The main reason why there’s hesitancy is usually focused on the parents or the fact that, up until this past year, we were an abstinence-only funded nation. We’re still an abstinence-only funded state.”

Here is the break down. There are 37 states that require abstinence information to be included. There are 28 that require the provision of information on a healthy sexuality. And only 13 require a discussion about sexual orientation. Abstinence-only education manages to be included in states providing information on how to have safe sex because of the stigma surrounding talking to students about sex.

Parents, Ardjomand-Kermani said, are wary because they believe discussing sex with students encourages sexual activity. But according to the National Survey of Family Growth, “Teens who received sex education were 50 percent less likely to experience pregnancy than those who received abstinence-only education.”

After many schools in Kansas stopped teaching abstinence-only education in 2008, the state’s teen pregnancy rate declined by 9 percent.

Some parents still believe having open dialogues about sex encourages the behavior. Others are calling for a change in curriculum after reflecting on their own experiences. Darlena Cunha, a professor at the University of Florida college of journalism and communications is just one of them.

“Sex education when I was a kid consisted of carrying an egg around for a day and trying not to break it because it was apparently your baby,” said Cunha. “We had some textbook anatomy diagrams of penises, I guess. My sex education was lacking severely, and we didn’t have ‘the talk’ at home either. My college roommate helped me find Planned Parenthood when I was 18 so I could start having sex.”

Ardjomand-Kermani’s history of sex education was just as short.“I’m a queer kid, so growing up the reason I got so obsessed with all the sex education stuff is that I knew there was nothing out there for me. I had never even seen a dental dam until college,” they explained.

Even today sex education is still very heteronormative and does not provide information that helps students LGBTQ community.

“What’s funny is that I had a very short sex education class when I lived here, in High Springs,” they said. “One day in fifth grade, the boys and the girls got separated and we talked about our ‘changing bodies.’”

A staple of the abstinence only education is discussing anatomy, once again neglecting the needs of the transgender community.

“Then we were basically told that sex was for marriage and condoms were for people who were slutty. So we weren’t given any of the tools or information,” Ardjomand-Kermani added.

This is one of the goals of abstinence only education, to create the standard that sex belongs inside of marraige.

Years later, they’ve found that not much has changed. After the recent defunding of abstinence-only education, children are still missing the same information their parents did.

This motivates Ardjomand-Kermani to educate students as frankly and thoroughly as possible, and students can help.

On campus, STRIVE at GatorWell launched a Sexual Consent health communication campaign this past August. Students interested can give presentations on sexual health, or even order condoms in bulk from GatorWell and have a discussion on safe sex within their own organization.

At the regional level, WellFlorida Council offers internships and volunteer opportunities that allow students to learn about health and help the local community.

UF students who are passionate about HIV prevention can volunteer with WellFlorida’s High Impact Prevention Program. With this program, they would help run free HIV testing and outreach events, as well as help distribute safer sex kits around the county. These activities take volunteers from nightclubs, festivals, and fraternity houses to health fares. The HIP program tries to reach as many people as possible.

           “Especially working in the HIV prevention field, it’s really hard to tell people even in high risk populations to change their behavior,” Ardjomand-Kermani  said.“If you do something the same way every single time – which is not use a condom – because you’ve been normalized to believe that it doesn’t feel as good or it means that you’re not as close to a person –  it’s going to be very difficult to reverse that behavior,” Ardjomand-Kermani explained.

Due to this cycle, prevention efforts focus on linking people to care as quickly as possible once they’re positive, Ardjomand-Kermani said, instead of educating early in schools through sex education.

Another way students can get involved is through UF VOX: Voices for Planned Parenthood. It is an organization on campus that gives out free safe sex supplies and tries to answer any sexual health related questions that students may have. Students interested in reproductive rights will eefind this organization a great way to spread awareness and sexual health information.

Pride Community Center of North Central Florida is also always looking for volunteers, for student interested in making sex education more LGBT friendly. Getting started is as easy as filling out a form on their website detailing your availability and interest, such as volunteering with youth, educational programs and or program development.

But what does informative and honest sex education look like?

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Mary Kay Schneider Carodine, the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at UF, thinks it starts with perspective.

“It should be holistic and positive. I want to attend to the emotional and intellectual part of sex education, as well as the physical part,” she said.

“I view sex education as being a part of the physical, mental and emotional health of a child and want to discuss it in the same way as we approach nutrition, exercise, consent and healthy relationships. All of these involve positive messages as well as how to handle challenges.”

To improve sex education, Dr. Carodine said, we need to ask a few questions. “What’s the purpose of sex Education? Why are we teaching it and for what purpose? Is it in the schools because we want to have people take care of their bodies, their minds and emotions?”

“When I think about sexual education, usually the person teaching is uncomfortable, and that doesn’t help. It becomes mechanistic. And it’s exclusionary – most of the time it talks only about between man and woman,” she said.

This means, for Dr. Carodine, switching from a mechanical model to a social one. Current sex education spends more time discussing sex organs that it does focusing on the effects of being sexually active. She wants students to treat their body well, and essential to their health is being comfortable with their bodies and having an understanding of consent.

Another big part, said Ardjomand-Kermani, is the language and delivery.

“I’m very frank and I go through how every single one of the barriers can be used in every single way regardless of genitalia. So I just assume that everyone is having sex with everyone and that everyone’s got all the parts,” Ardjomand-Kermani said.

Still, Ardjomand-Kermani understands that this could be hard for some parents to accept.

“If you just don’t make things a big deal, you don’t giggle right alongside of them, it makes people feel a lot more comfortable,” they suggested.

Both educators, Dr. Carodine and Ardjomand-Kerman,i believe comfortably talking about sex is essential to protecting everyone’s health whether they are sexually active or not. Students can do their part by having discussions themselves and raising awareness in the spaces on campus they frequent.

And parents, no matter their opinion on sex education, are starting to recognize the importance of an open dialogue as well.

“As a mom who had strict rules growing up, I can’t shake the whole ‘I don’t want them to have sex until they’re adults’ thing,” Cunha admitted. “But that’s because I love them and I want to keep them safe forever. So the next best thing is to help them be open and honest with me so I can help them stay safe as they grow and their lives change.”

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