Radnor’s sex-ed curriculum is woefully insufficient, Radnor students report

“The sex-ed curriculum has failed in teaching about sex for today’s generation,” reported an anonymous RHS senior. “Radnor’s sex-ed is awful and we need to be taught about not only heterosexual sex but sex with the same sex,” said another. According to students, the Radnor high school sex-ed curriculum remains outdated and inadequate. The Radnor Health Department declined the Radnorite’s request for an interview.

The RHS health room and textbook

The RHS health room and textbook

Ellie Davis, Editor-in-Chief

The latest Radnor culture war, mirroring similar conflicts across the county, targets books in the RHS library that include sexual interactions. Nation-wide and local controversy swarms around Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy and George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, which include consensual and non-consensual sex, raising questions of what level of sexual content is appropriate for teens in the young adult fiction on the library shelves. Discomfort with sex in fiction, even safe and consensual sex, demonstrates a general discomfort with the mention of sex in school, including in the health classrooms that are meant to help prepare students for healthy intimate relationships throughout their lives. Though Radnor touts an “abstinence-plus” curriculum, many current and past RHS students say that they feel like Radnor has provided an insufficient, and in some ways harmful, sex education.

In 2019, Morgan Wisehart, Abigail Lenhard, and Estelle Atkinson offered their perspectives on why sex-ed curriculums with information beyond an abstinence-only approach better prepare students for navigating their personal sexual relationships, and how Radnor’s sex-ed curriculum fails in this department. 

In fifth grade, health teachers introduce students to the changes of puberty and the “basics of human sexuality.” Class discussions are squarely framed around the biological mechanics of reproduction, removing the human element of personal relationships. Fifth-grade health was “helpful in having a good 5th-grade curriculum with co-ed lessons on both male and female anatomy,” reported an anonymous sophomore. “Looking back, I am grateful that they taught us about HIV/AIDS at such a young age because it showed me that STIs were something real and dangerous, and it debunked myths such as contracting the disease from a toilet seat.”  

In seventh grade, health class revisits the topic of sex, to talk about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) “as well as the risk associated with sexual pressures.” In an interview, one senior described this curriculum as “a very biological lens of sex, learning the mechanics of sex… how babies are produced, but never really any serious discussion of the social aspects of sex. The ramifications of sex on an adolescent psyche was never really discussed.” This topic accompanies discussions about drugs, alcohol, and tobacco — “Refusal skills will be practiced to help students refrain from these dangerous risk behaviors,” reads the curriculum guide. The conversation around sex was presented as similar to drugs and tobacco, stressing that it’s best avoided and that abstinence is the only surefire way to prevent pregnancy and STDs.  

In eighth grade, the discussion around sex still focuses on STDs, reproductive mechanics, with the addition of “the development of healthy relationships in the teen years.” As the Radnorite authors previously pointed out, the degree to which elements of healthy relationships are talked about is unclear. which, focuses squarely on “Sexuality, STDs, HIV, and AIDS,” does little to discuss healthy relationships. One anonymous sophomore reflected, “We were educated on STDs and STIs and their symptoms, but not how to prevent them, besides not having sex.”

 The district website makes no mention of sex-ed in the ninth-grade health and wellness description, and for tenth-grade health, the website simply lists “sexuality” as one of the topics within the curriculum. For most students, this discussion, again, zoomed in on STIs. To credit the health textbook, it does include lessons on “Understanding Sexuality,” covering topics such as puberty, the process of questioning one’s sexuality, masturbation, and gender identity. Few students, however, reported ever addressing the topics in this chapter, let alone reading these sections of the textbook. “In my tenth-grade health textbook, abstinence was emphasized as the best and only way to prevent STDs and pregnancies,” reported an anonymous junior. “To me, that wasn’t helpful because sexual interaction is a normal part of a teenage relationship, and the desire for sex is normal for teenagers in general. It’s not realistic to believe that every teenager, especially those in a relationship, will just be abstinent.”

The textbook’s “Understanding Sexuality” chapter, for all the valuable information it provides, still builds to the conclusion that abstinence is universally the best decision for teenagers, including “refusal skills” to avoid “sexual pressure.” As discussed previously by Radnorite reporters, the term “pressures” implies that “no sexual activity engaged in by students will be voluntary, but rather forced upon them. 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.” 

In a recent informal, anonymous questionnaire, conducted outside of school, when students were asked to rate how sufficiently Radnor’s sex-ed curriculum has prepared them for future sexual encounters, 82% of respondents gave the lowest ratings of a 1 or a 2 on a 5-point scale. (A score of 1 meant that “Radnor’s sex-ed has done nothing to help me,” and 5 meant that “Radnor’s sex-ed gave me all the information I need for a healthy sexual relationship now or in the future.”) The questionnaire’s respondents included 90 anonymous current Radnor students (43 seniors, 14 juniors, 25 sophomores, 7 freshmen), and 17 recent Radnor alumni. The Radnorite staff created this questionnaire and distributed it digitally, outside of school, to allow students to give honest criticism without concerns of administrative oversight. Although the respondents do not represent a random sampling of RHS students, meaning the responses cannot be generalized to the whole RHS population, the data can still offer insight into students’ experiences with the sex education curriculum.  

In 2019, the health department spoke with Radnorite reporters about the sex-ed curriculum, though no teachers provided direct quotes. Once again, I reached out to the head of the RHS health department, hoping to better understand the curriculum and the perspective of health teachers, particularly whether they are ever prevented from teaching certain material. The health department, however, declined my request for an interview after consulting with the administration.  

The questionnaire data shows just how much valuable knowledge students have gained and retained from these fifth- through tenth-grade health lessons. Of respondents, 79% said that they have learned about STDs, though only 61% said they learned about condoms. Within that 61%, 85% said they didn’t fully learn how to properly use condoms. Of 107 survey responders, this leaves 13 students who currently have the knowledge to use condoms in STD and pregnancy prevention.  

Throughout all discussions of sex, 71% of students reported that they were never taught about consent. “The number one most important thing in sex is consent, and I have never heard that word spoken in a health classroom,” reported a senior. “Especially with the number of people being sexually assaulted today, this topic needs to be covered.” Last year, the RHS administration sponsored a seminar for seniors on sexual assault, consent, and healthy relationships, but for many students, senior year is far too late to introduce the basics of a healthy sexual relationship.  

Throughout Radnor sex-ed, 60% of students were told that abstinence is the best approach to sexual relationships. “The whole ‘abstinence is the best approach’ method is still taught, which I think is wildly outdated,” said a junior. “Teenagers are figuring this out in their life right now, and by keeping them in the dark about safe sex, you do them a disservice when abstinence is taught as the best way to go.” Coupled with this emphasis on abstinence, 74.8% of students were never taught about methods of birth control other than condoms. “I didn’t learn anything about healthy birth control options either. I learned a lot on my own about consent [and] different forms of birth control,” reported a sophomore. This lack of information about birth control puts greater unfair responsibility on female students engaging in heterosexual sex when they could have learned about options other than male condoms in school.  

A common pattern emerges within the Radnor curriculum: sex is discussed on a fear-based model, emphasizing the things that can go wrong such as pregnancy and STDs. Michael Tino, a pastor with the Unitarian Universalist Church and one of the authors of the Church’s sexuality education curriculum, Our Whole Lives (OWL), explained in an interview how “comprehensive sexuality education is a whole different thing from abstinence-only education and fear-based sexuality education.” With the latter, “their goal is to make having sexual intercourse and sexual encounters something that teenagers don’t want to do. And the way they do it is by pretending there is something wrong with it, that there’s something wrong with sexuality, pleasure, and our bodies.”

Radnor’s education system falls in line with the bare minimum of what the state of Pennsylvania requires: STDs, vaguely some elements of healthy relationships, and a stress on abstinence. This fear-based framing of sex-ed leaves out the social and emotional elements of sex, excluding discussions about queer sex and completely disregarding the possibility that teenagers in healthy relationships might reasonably and responsibly choose to have sex.  

Especially unsettling, 92% of students reported never learning about sexual interactions other than heterosexual intercourse. In an interview, one student, Student A, who identifies as non-heterosexual, said that Radnor’s heteronormative sex-ed curriculum “was alienating.” They reported, “In seventh grade, I definitely felt that I was not represented in the curriculum and there wasn’t much I could get out of the curriculum besides a simple biological understanding of reproduction.”  

This lack of curriculum representation for queer students has direct and serious ramifications. “In my personal experience I really didn’t have any safety net,” said Student A. “I didn’t know the importance of protected sex. I didn’t know the importance of forming a healthy relationship with your sexual partner and that was very difficult to navigate as a young teenager.” 

Especially in comparison to the amount of sexual content and potential sexual experiences that students encounter outside of school, the Radnor curriculum falls short. Whether the school will talk about it or not, on average half of teenagers have sex during their four years of high school, and one-third are sexually active at any given time. “In the age of the internet the curriculum has completely been lacking in comparison to what teens can find online,” reported a sophomore. “If we are being real, sex is something that a majority of teenagers are doing with little to no knowledge due to the lack of education that is offered in our school system,” said one senior.  

When students don’t get the information they need about sex from school, they easily turn to other sources. As Student A pointed out, “if you’re not taught from school, you’re going to learn about it from some other uncontrolled media, whether that’s porn, social media, or your friends, and most likely that will not be the best advice that someone can get.”  

“It’s just inadequate to say to anyone, well just don’t have sex,” said Tino. “If you make people think that there’s something wrong with their bodies and how we engage in intimacy with one another then it leads to people thinking there’s something wrong with them. It leads to unhealthy relationships and bad body image.” 

In addition to causing unhealthy relationships and poor body image, curriculums that push abstinence over comprehensive education often backfire, causing increases in the rate of teen pregnancies and STI transmission rates. In contrast to abstinence-only or fear-based education, comprehensive sexuality education proves most effective. “It’s been shown again and again that comprehensive sex education, and not abstinence-only education, reduce incidents of teenage pregnancy, and delays the age of first sexual intercourse,” said Tino. “If you give people the tools to make good decisions and the tools to communicate with partners, then you don’t wind up doing things that you aren’t ready for because you have the emotional maturity to talk about it and to think about it.”

According to Tino, OWL gives this comprehensive education. “We want people to be able to have healthy body image and know what sexual relationships are and we want people to be able to make good decisions for themselves.” In contrast to Radnor’s fifth-grade introduction of the mechanics of baby-making, OWL starts with relationships. “Kindergartners will learn about friendships, and they’ll learn about their bodies because they’ve noticed they have bodies… and that’s probably enough in kindergarten,” explained Tino. “In the older grades we talk about how you show love and care for other people, and that doesn’t have to be sexual — how do you show love for a best friend? What does it mean to make yourself vulnerable to a friend?” 

Unlike in Radnor, where the first mention of the dynamics of consent comes from an outside source in 12th grade, in OWL, consent is a fundamental value of the whole curriculum. This too, starts in elementary school: “we talk about consent about just touch, that you have to consent for someone to hug you, for example,” said Tino. “If you teach a five-year-old that they have enough control over their body that they need to say yes before someone hugs them that lodges in their brain in a certain way, in a healthy way.” Later, in middle school, the curriculum analyzes power and coercion, and how “coercion is not consent.” Tino brought up an outside video using the metaphor of a cup of tea to explain consent. This video might be a great addition to the already-copious numbers of generally well-liked videos that health teachers show their Freshman and Sophomore students.  

Through basing conversations about sexuality in relationships, OWL doesn’t leave out queer students. “We don’t actually distinguish” between heterosexual and non-heterosexual relationships, said Tino. “If you’re going to have a relationship it can be with any other gendered person.” Of course, when discussing topics like the HIV transmission rate of vaginal vs anal sex or risks of pregnancy, the OWL curriculum specifies the type of sex. But with more general discussions of sexual intercourse, they “talk about all the different types of sexual intercourse people can have, regardless of what their anatomy is or their gender identity or sexual orientation.” They hope to avoid putting any student in the position of Student A, listening to exclusively heteronormative discussions. “No one should be sitting there going ‘well my body doesn’t do any of these things so this lesson doesn’t apply to me,’” said Tino. In middle school, OWL discusses homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, combating the classic heteronormativity that has become the cliche standard of high school classrooms.  

OWL also goes past the mention of condoms within its discussions of birth control. They bring in physical kits with examples of many types of birth control: condoms, IUDs, pills, internal condoms. “We talk about the risks associated with [the birth control options] and why you might choose this,” said Tino. With these discussions that include female birth control options, young women engaging in heterosexual sex gain a sense of autonomy and agency over their bodies, in contrast to young women in Radnor who most often only learn about male birth control.  

The Pennsylvania State Legislature requires little-to-no sex-ed, putting PA far behind other states that require more comprehensive sex-ed. Currently, the PA Coalition for Sex Education (PACSE) is working diligently to pass legislation in the 2021 General Assembly session mandating more comprehensive sex-ed. But in the meantime, nothing is stopping Radnor from locally taking the initiative to modify our School District’s curriculum. Public schools across the country have already successfully implemented the OWL curriculum. The creators of OWL purposefully kept most pieces of the curriculum completely secular, so that it could be used in any public education environment. Therefore, the OWL curriculum could legally and easily be adapted for Radnor students. Even with Pennsylvania’s requirement for stressing abstinence, the OWL curriculum could be implemented, as “it does say that abstinence is the only 100% effective method against pregnancy and STD transmission, and it talks about reasons why you would be abstinent and reasons why you might choose not to be.” 

Regardless of any curriculum changes, parents in Pennsylvania maintain their right to remove their children from any sex-ed curriculum that they think does not fall in line with their principles or religious beliefs. All Radnor students deserve access to a comprehensive sexual education, even if particular groups of parents might want to shield their children from this knowledge.  

Others may reasonably argue that parents should shoulder the responsibility of providing whatever level of sexual education to their children that they see fit. Parents do “play a primary role in disseminating sexual information-through words, behaviors, and values they convey,” according to a study from the Pediatric Clinics of North America, which also concludes that parents should “incorporate discussions about positive aspects of sexuality, such as pleasure, satisfaction, and intimacy, into these conversations,” to best set their children up for healthy and safe future sexual relationships. An improved high school sex-ed curriculum could act as a positive complement to the information about sexuality that parents wish to provide their children. And, in reality, students live with various levels of parent involvement in their lives. Those whose parents don’t provide any sexual education should have a quality comprehensive public school education to fall back on for this essential information, so they are not left more vulnerable to future risky sexual behaviors.  

The Radnor sex-ed curriculum, as it stands, actively harms students’ perception of sexuality. At a bare minimum, students shouldn’t walk away from their 10th grade Health and Wellness classes with a more heteronormative and stigmatized view of sex than they started with.  

George M. Johnson, the author of the controversial book All Boys Aren’t Blue, in an interview with Time Magazine, said that in his book he is “talking about sexual education. I am talking about consent. I am talking about agency. And I am using my story to teach kids about the mistakes that I made the first time that I was having sex, so they don’t make those same mistakes.” Because these discussions about healthy queer sex aren’t present in our health curriculum, queer students see books like All Boys Aren’t Blue as important lifelines for representation and guidance in an environment of heteronormativity. “I think it is immensely valuable to see positive representation of a queer coming of age story and healthy queer sexual relationships because that really isn’t present in the media,” said Student A. “I was writing the book I wish I got to have when I was a youth struggling with the intersections of my Blackness and my queerness,” Johnson told Time Magazine. 

This direct representation and guidance is essential for queer students, as Student A reported. However, we shouldn’t accept a health curriculum so absent of essential information about sexuality that students feel the need to consult outside sources.  

Currently, the Radnor sex-ed curriculum, though officially abstinence-plus, mirrors the outdated and fear-based curriculums of mandated abstinence-only education. Radnor students know that they deserve better. As reflected in RTSD’s core values, “lifelong learning is essential to creating a better life and world.” Sexuality is a normal and relevant part of the human experience for Our Whole Lives — let’s structure our sexuality curriculum around this reality.