Morgan Wisehart, Abigail Lenhard, Estelle Atkinson
On May 15th, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law a bill that bans nearly all abortions in the state, without exceptions for rape or incest. Unsurprisingly, everyone who voted for this bill was a white male (twenty-five white men who will literally never experience pregnancy). According to this law, abortions are only legal if the pregnant person’s life is at risk. A doctor that performs an abortion that is deemed to violate this law could face up to 99 years in prison. For a state that ranks 49th in education and has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the United States, this law is disgraceful.
So let’s talk about sex… ed.
Sexual education in America has a long backstory. In 1913, Chicago was the first place to begin teaching sex ed in high schools, many years after the National Education Association pressed for “moral education in schools.” However, this progressivism was not handled well by the Catholic Church, and its influences led to the program being repealed and the superintendent who endorsed it resigning. It wasn’t until the nation was plagued by sexually transmitted diseases during WWI that the government decided to take action. Initially, education on syphilis and gonorrhea was given to soldiers, but a 1919 report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau later suggested that soldiers must learn about STDs prior to serving. By the 1930s, social hygiene and sexuality programs were instituted in about 30% of US schools (2). Programs continued to develop but were met with pushback after the sexual revolution of the 60s. Author and social scientist Janice Irvine reports that it was during this decade when “religious conservatives began using sex ed to their political advantage.” Rumors were spread throughout America regarding the horrors of sex ed and what a child may be exposed to. These incorrect accusations about demonstrating sex created a stigma surrounding anything other than abstinence. Perspectives shifted a little after the HIV/AIDS pandemic; education was now inevitable, but how it was to be implemented was still undecided. In 1996, with the help of religious conservatives, the government passed the Welfare Reform Act and directed millions of dollars to abstinence based education.
Now, there is a struggle between the two types of sexual education: abstinence-only education and abstinence-plus (or “comprehensive”) education. Both curricula send the message that the only sure way to avoid STIs and teen pregnancy is through abstinence, and of course it is. That, hopefully, we all know. The real difference is that that’s all abstinence education is, whereas comprehensive sex ed covers methods of contraception. If tan abstinence-only curriculum does include information on contraceptives, the information is strictly on the failures of them. The majority of schools in the United States have chosen to teach abstinence-only sex ed, and this is partly due to government bias. In 2006, the federal government dedicated $206 million to abstinence-only education, and schools choosing abstinence-plus programs would receive no federal funds (3). The whole system is deeply connected to conservative religious motivations, harming our youth as a result.
The results of the two curricula differ significantly. Teens who were taught comprehensive sex ed are 50% less likely to experience pregnancy than those who received abstinence-only education. There is also a reported decline in teen STIs, a 60% reduction in unprotected sex, and a reduced number of sexual partners (4). According to the organization Future of Sex Ed, “No abstinence-only program has yet been proven through rigorous evaluation to help youth delay sex for a significant period of time, help youth decrease their number of sex partners, or reduce STI or pregnancy rates among teens.”
Pennsylvania sexual education is, in the simplest term, lacking. According to Pennsylvania code § 4.29, HIV/AIDS education is required. While this is a very important topic for students to learn about, if it is not taught correctly, it is dangerous to adolescent health. The state requires that “Programs discussing transmission through sexual activity shall stress that abstinence from sexual activity is the only completely reliable means of preventing sexual transmission.” As mentioned, abstinence-only education is wildly inefficient. HIV/AIDS is a serious disease and all methods of prevention should be presented to students, because if they are not, students who chose not to remain abstinent are put at an immediately higher risk for contracting this disease, or any other STI, than students who are given abstinence plus education. Pennsylvania does not require any valuable sex ed. Sex ed is never mentioned in any Pennsylvania education requirements. There are no education requirements regarding contraceptives, safe sexual activity, or dialogue about the LGBTQ+ community.
While officially Radnor Township School District may lean more towards an “abstinence-plus” curriculum as opposed to a strictly “abstinence” curriculum, there are still improvements to be made. Sex ed in Radnor begins in fifth grade, with the dreaded five day lesson spread out over the course of five weeks, during which the nervous fifth graders come home each day with a letter for parents to sign about what they learned. This unit is referred to as the “human growth and development unit,” and is described as such on the RTSD website: “The human growth and development unit familiarizes the students with the changes that take place within the body during adolescence. Emphasis is placed on the physical changes the students are experiencing now and in the near future. Social and mental development is also covered. The basics of human sexuality will be introduced.” Due to the young age of the class, a discussion surrounding safe sex is not introduced at this time (5).
As students move on to the middle school, they will not encounter the topic of sex again until seventh grade (6). The curriculum published on the RTSD website reads: “Some of the important issues covered in this course are Drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco abuse as well as the risk associated with sexual pressures. Refusal skills will be practiced to help students refrain from these dangerous risk behaviors.” The risks associated with the “sexual pressures” introduced in the unit include STIs and AIDS, which are to be avoided through implementing the “refusal skills” learned in this unit. The description presented by the district is slightly problematic; the term “pressures” implies that no sexual activity engaged in by students will be voluntary, but rather forced upon them. As such, sexual activity becomes something that students must “refuse,” which is the definition of abstinence. The portrayal of sex in a negative and alien light further develops the stigma around it and perpetuates the fear surrounding sex. Avoiding the idea that safe sex is possible makes the subject even more taboo.
This study of the risks associated with sexuality resumes in eighth grade (7). At this stage, according to the RTSD curriculum, “students will be required to know the male and female anatomy, the stages of reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases and the development of healthy relationships in the teen years.” It is unclear initially what is taught during the “development of healthy relationships” portion of this lesson. However, the textbook unit associated with this particular topic is titled “Sexuality, STDs, HIV and AIDS.” By this point, a common theme is emerging in sex-ed in Radnor Township: a strict focus on the prevention of STDs, perfectly congruent with the Pennsylvania requirements. Middle school is a pivotal time in development, and a time in which students are impressionable when it comes to a topic that must be dealt with so seriously. Students repeatedly learn about physiological development and STDs, but that’s all.
Furthermore, the district does not alert students of the resources in their community that might be available to them. Medical institutions that provide birth control, the pros and cons of different birth control options, and state laws regarding birth control are not a part of the sex-ed curriculum. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) details parental consent laws regarding birth control in Pennsylvania (8). The ACLU approaches the issue using an example involving Katherine Ryan, or KR, who is a 15-year old at a clinic asking questions about the treatment available to her without parental consent. The article addresses the following questions: Can the clinician give KR a pregnancy test without parental consent? Will the clinician have to report the results to KR’s parents? Can the clinician discuss the birth control options with KR without parental consent? And finally, does knowing about the opposition of KR’s parents to KR receiving birth control change the clinician’s obligations? The straightforward answers to these questions are, yes, no, yes, and no. Under the Minor’s Consent Act, it is unconstitutional and against Pennsylvania law for the clinician to deny KR treatment and confidentiality. If students were aware of this, it is a logical conclusion that more students would seek birth control and practice safe sex, as opposed to engaging in unprotected sex for fear of parental punishment.
There is no mention of the health curriculum on the Radnor High School web page. However, the RHS health department clarified that the curriculum is abstinence plus, receives no federal funding, and teaches a sexuality unit in 10th grade. In our experience, sex education was not taught. We did not receive lessons regarding contraceptives, “barrier methods”, or safe sex in general. This experience may be unique to us, but it has left a conspicuous gap in our education. Sex ed is difficult to teach because there is such a developed stigma around the topic, as parents are fearful that it could promote licentious activity or offend their religious beliefs. The lack of sex ed in Radnor is likely a result of this stigma, but it is the duty of any educational institution to give their students an education that they can utilise, or frankly, that they need. Our health teachers understand the importance of this topic and want to help their students, but the district needs to support and defend our health teachers when teaching these topics, as it is evident that the fear of community backlash is degrading our sex ed curriculum. Not only does the district need to help appease the community and dismantle the stigma surrounding the teaching of sex ed, but resources need to be directed towards the education itself. Teachers should be trained in teaching comprehensive sex-ed so Radnor students are not left behind the rest of the country in their understanding of a crucial aspect of their lives. Additionally, social practices do not seem to be accurately represented in the classroom; no connection between sex and healthy relationships is drawn and, no, there is no mention of what safe sex is for the gay community. There seems to be a disparity between curriculum expectations and lessons taught in practice, evidently derived from this lack of community or administrative support.
Teen pregnancy rates correlate directly with the quality of sex education. The national teen pregnancy rate for 2016 was 20 pregnancies per 1,000 teenage girls (9). If there is anyone here who doesn’t believe that teen pregnancy is a bad thing, understand these facts: “Pregnancy and birth are significant contributors to high school dropout rates among girls. Only about 50% of teen mothers receive a high school diploma by 22 years of age, whereas approximately 90% of women who do not give birth during adolescence graduate from high school. . . Children of teenage mothers are more likely to have lower school achievement and to drop-out of high school, have more health problems, be incarcerated at some time during adolescence, give birth as a teenager, and face unemployment as a young adult” (10).
California, a state with modern sex ed, passed a law in 2014 that requires instruction on gender identity, sexual orientation, decision-making and negotiation to overcome peer pressure, and sexual harassment. As a result of their education programs, California boasts one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the nation: fifteen per every 1,000 (11). Mississippi boasts a teen pregnancy rate of thirty-five percent. Thirty-five. On top of that statistic, Mississippi also reports that 54% of high schoolers have had sex, and 39% of high schoolers did not use a condom last time they engaged in sexual activity. Predictably, Mississippi also has the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the country, and more than half of the cases were among adolescents. The legislation that has led that state to such “prosperity”, is House Bill 494 (12).
This bill ensures that abstinence based education is the state standard. It also “teaches the harmful consequences to the child, the child’s parents and society that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to produce,” while scaring children with “the likely negative psychological and physical effects of not abstaining” (13). The fine print also clarifies that no condom or contraceptive demonstrations are to ever occur.
The bill also specifies that children must be separated into male and female groups while being instructed. Similarly, the 2016 Alabama standard includes a section specifying: “An emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state” (14). States are not providing safe environments for kids to learn about a crucial part of life, and the message being sent is not an accepting one. Laws such as these are designed to shame children for their sexuality and specifically deprive them of knowing how to engage in sexual activity safely.
Recently, this country has seen a flood of restrictive abortion bills and “pro-life” sentiments. With the election of “conservative” President Donald Trump, “pro-life” voices have been amplified nationally. The appointment of republican Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has given conservative lawmakers the confidence that an abortion case may make it back up to the Supreme Court, where the momentous Roe v. Wade decision will be overturned. In a desperate attempt to make this situation a reality, legislators in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri have all presented or implemented extremely restrictive abortion bills. Every single person in support of these bills identifies as “pro-life”, but are they? None of these states rank high in education, none of these states have quality, accessible foster care, and none of these states provide free public healthcare. If “pro-life” meant promoting healthy lives, proper sex ed would be mandatory. Students would be taught, comprehensively, how to protect themselves from pregnancy and STIs so that they could lead better, safer, productive lives. The only way to lower the rate of teen pregnancy and thereby adolescent abortion rates is to teach students how to protect themselves. The state is punishing students for not using education that they were never given. So, we need to talk about sex.
- Paul. “Mean Girls Quotes Gym Teacher.” Mean Girls Quotes Gym Teacher, 1 Jan. 1970, quotezf.blogspot.com/2014/07/mean-girls-quotes-gym-teacher.html.
- Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, 13 Mar. 2010, www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.
- Barth, Robynn. “Sex Education in the Public Schools.” Journal of Ethics | American Medical Association, American Medical Association, 1 Oct. 2005,
- Futureofsexed.org, www.futureofsexed.org/compsexed.html.
- “Fifth Grade Overview.” Fifth Grade Overview, www.rtsd.org/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&ModuleInstanceID=16167&ViewID=7b97f7ed-8e5e-4120-848f-a8b4987d588f&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=22718&PageID=12397.
- “American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.” “Do You Have to Tell My Mom?” Minors, Health Care & the Law | ACLU of Pennsylvania, www.aclupa.org/our-work/duvall-reproductive-freedom-project/minorsaccesstoconfidential/minors-health-care-and-the-law.
- Thompson, Lizzie. “Sex Ed, America, 2016: Where the Information Is Often Absent – or Medically Inaccurate.” The 74 Sex Ed America 2016 Where the Information Is Often Absent or Medically Inaccurate Comments, www.the74million.org/article/sex-ed-america-2016-where-the-info-is-often-absent-and-sometimes-legally-inaccurate/.
- “About Teen Pregnancy | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/teenpregnancy/about/index.htm.
- “Teen Birth Rate In California.” California Healthline, 12 Dec. 2018, californiahealthline.org/multimedia/teen-birth-rate-in-california/.
- Mississippi State Department of Health. Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) – Mississippi State Department of Health, msdh.ms.gov/msdhsite/handlers/printcontent.cfm?ContentID=11790&ThisPageURL=http://msdh.ms.gov/msdhsite/index.cfm/index.cfm&EntryCode=11790&GroupID=44.
- “House Bill 494.” HB 494 (As Introduced) – 2016 Regular Session, billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/documents/2016/html/HB/0400-0499/HB0494IN.htm.
- “Alabama Code Title 16. Education § 16-40A-2.” Findlaw, codes.findlaw.com/al/title-16-education/al-code-sect-16-40a-2.html.