Let’s Talk About Sex (Education)
What your students think about sex ed and abstinence.
By Cindy Long
For the first time in a decade, teen pregnancy is on the rise.
A Guttmacher Institute report found that pregnancy rates among 15-to-19-year-olds rose by 3 percent between 2005 and 2006, after a steep decline in the 1990s. It instantly sparked claims that the abstinence-only sex education programs of the past 10 years are ineffective. But just a few days after the Guttmacher report, another study—this one from the University of Pennsylvania—showed adolescents who took abstinence-only sex education classes were more likely to delay having sex.
So what really works?
As the debate among educators, policymakers, and parents rages on like a teenager’s hormones, NEA Today talked to some students to hear what they think.
Emma Waitzman lobbied for comprehensive sex education at Utah's State Capitol.
Photo by Jeff Hammer
Emma Waitzman, a high school senior from Salt Lake City, Utah, has long considered herself an activist, but when she heard a state legislator claim that “teaching sex ed is like giving a child a loaded gun,” she knew she had to take on the comprehensive sex education cause.
“I knew it was important that someone set the strange analogies straight,” she says. So on Teen Lobby Day, she went to the capitol and personally told the legislator that teaching sex ed is actually like teaching a child safety precautions in case he ever came across a loaded gun.
“There are 12 unwanted teen pregnancies every day in Utah,” says Waitzman. “This number is way too big for me to ignore. Frankly, I think any number of unwanted pregnancies is too many.”
In Utah, teachers are allowed to teach comprehensive sex education, including the use of condoms, but they aren’t allowed to advocate for their use. Waitzman says the emphasis is on abstinence and the curriculum uses scare tactics to make the point.
She says teens are told about the failure rates of contraceptives instead of their importance in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. The approach ignores the possibility that many teens who want to be sexually active are eventually going to have sex. And, according to Waitzman, if they’re told that condoms rarely work, they’ll figure, why bother using them?
She adds that some of the curriculum’s scare tactics even include shaming. “Female adolescents are told that if they have sex before marriage they will feel used and guilty,” Waitzman says. “In one video we watched, a couple is getting married. The man gives the woman a brand new pair of sneakers, but the woman gives the man a used pair. He says, ‘It looks like you let the whole football team run in these.’ She replies, ‘Well, I made them all wear socks.’”
Waitzman and her fellow student activists are working with Planned Parenthood to change one line of the curriculum that instructs Utah teachers to advocate for abstinence and not for contraception.
“I’ve heard of students using plastic wrap as contraception, and the sex myths don’t stop there,” Waitzman says. “But teachers are instructed to ignore questions about sex. Honesty shows students respect, and we feel more compelled to believe what a teacher says as a result.”
On the other hand, if it were up to Corpus Christi, Texas, high school senior Corinne Kelly, teachers wouldn’t answer questions about sex at all.
“I think parents should educate their children on the subject,” she says. “I don’t think the school should be doing it.”
Kelly is fully aware that Texas leads the nation in teen pregnancies (23 percent of the state’s teen births are repeat pregnancies). It’s why she’s founder and president of the Revolution Abstinence Club—she didn’t think teens were getting the message.
“At first I didn’t want to start the club, but I kept seeing girls taking birth control pills in the bathroom. I saw condom packages dropped on the floor in the hallways. I heard guys talking about whether or not they should tell their parents about an STD they thought they had,” Kelly says. “I felt guilty seeing all that evidence, so I started the club.”
Despite winning the Texas Abstinence Summit’s slogan contest—“Don’t Hate Cuz We Wait”—the club had a bit of a slow start. Only about six or seven members attended the Thursday meetings during the first year.
“Oh my gosh, we were the biggest joke on campus,” Kelly says. “Students would come in for the free donuts, but run screaming the minute they realized it was the abstinence club.”
A year later, the club is catching on. Now they have about 40 members attending the weekly meetings, where they drink coffee and eat Shipley’s donuts while talking about ways to resist peer pressure, how to respect themselves and their bodies, and how love doesn’t necessarily lead to sex.
“We just want teens to know they’re special people and need to take care of themselves,” Kelly says. “We want to support them so they can make the best decisions for the best life they can ever have.”
The Revolution Abstinence Club (Andrew Longoria, bottom left, and Corrinne Kelly, bottom right) with their winning slogan, “Don’t Hate Cuz We Wait.”
Photo by Elise Garst
Andrew Longoria is the Revolution Abstinence Club vice president. Longoria knows something about unwanted pregnancies—his mother got pregnant when she was 15 and gave the baby up for adoption.
“My big brother is out there somewhere and he doesn’t even know I exist,” says Longoria.
Longoria said he helped found the abstinence club because Corpus Christi continues to have a problem with unwanted teen pregnancies. “It’s sad because they’re going to grow up to be adults way too soon and not have a childhood,” he says. “Once you have a baby, you can’t be a teenager anymore, you can’t be a kid. I just want to tell teens everywhere—don’t have sex because it will ruin your life.”
Gabrielle Garcia, 17, agrees that sex can ruin your life, and maybe even end it. She’s a senior in Miami, Florida, where AIDS cases are on the rise. The city leads the nation in the number of new AIDS and pediatric cases, often among babies born to teenage mothers.
Even though Garcia is a proponent of abstinence, she doesn’t think sex should be discussed only at home. She thinks it’s the job of the school to get the word out that no sex is the safest sex. For her community, it can be a matter of life or death.
Garcia is a member of “Sisters on a Mission,” a group of more than 30 freshman to senior girls who perform a series of monologues at Florida high schools about why abstinence is the best policy. Each girl has her own speaking part, but the one they share, and the one they agree sums up their message is, “We are known for our education, not our reputation.”
Sisters on a Mission perform monologues about abstinence at high schools across south Florida.
Photo by Elise Garst
Garcia first encountered Sisters on a Mission as a 10th grader, when she saw them perform at an abstinence rally.
“I was amazed, and knew that I should participate in the cause,” she says. “AIDS is taking over the new generation and something has to be done to create a change.”
Garcia believes that educators should emphasize abstinence, but that the curriculum should also include information about STDs like AIDS. She thinks it’s important not only to inform students, but to invite guest speakers who’ve had experiences with AIDS into the school to share their stories.
“Sex education is a very delicate subject, but it definitely needs to be brought to our attention,” she says. “I think teachers should talk about STDs, their effects on health, and the cost of treatment. You should persuade students, because they may be hard to convince.”
Dan Jubelirer, a junior from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, agrees that teens are hard to convince, and that’s why they need to be given as much information as possible. He thinks it’s vital that teens who are going to be sexually active are prepared to talk about birth control and condoms before they become intimate.
“It’s extremely difficult to talk honestly with a partner about sex,” he says. “Too many people don’t think about it, and then the sex ‘just happens’ without proper thought going into protection.”
He thinks that if students can have open discussions with peers and teachers at school, it can help teens prepare for those uncomfortable talks about protection with a girlfriend or boyfriend, and to avoid those even more uncomfortable talks with their parents. “Lets face it,” he says. “Thinking about parents and sex at the same time is kind of awful.”
But even though these teens have differing ideas about whether sex education should be provided in school or by parents at home, by peers in performances or in abstinence clubs, they all agree on one thing: Teenagers need to learn how to respect themselves and to make healthy decisions that don’t lead to unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted disease.
“If we don’t,” says Garcia, “imagine what the future would be like.”
For NEA’s position on sex education, visit www.nea.org/handbook, and click on Resolutions to find B-51. For information on preventing teen pregnancy, visit The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy at http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/.