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In defense of real sex ed

30 March 2016

below is my speech to a Planned Parenthood event titled “Stand Up for Sex Ed” on March 14

My name is Grace Evans. I teach high school math at Boston Community Leadership Academy in Hyde Park.

I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist church, which meant that my primary experience with sex ed was an 8-month-long Our Whole Lives course in the 8th grade. We compared 18 forms of birth control, drew anatomically correct models of male and female genitalia, and raced to put condoms on cucumbers while blindfolded. But we also role-played two way communication, to learn how to speak and listen effectively in all kinds of relationships. We learned about gender identity vs. gender expression vs. sexual orientation vs. sexual expression. I think I still have the Venn Diagrams at my parents’ house.  We saw the STI slideshow and the Miracle of Birth video that feature in most high school health classes. But we also talked about why people have sex and how different kinds of sexual behavior might involve different risks and different kinds of pleasure.

As an adolescent, I experienced how a comprehensive sexuality education shapes one’s development into a healthy adult. My peers and I were able to consider many hypothetical scenarios, discuss the options, and sketch out our responses.

And as a teenager, I experienced how even the most progressive and pragmatic upbringing can’t fully inoculate you against the vagaries of navigating sexual relationships for the first time. Nothing in my OWL class prepared me for the blurry, vaguely consensual encounters that led me to intimately understand the psychology of sexual assault.

Now, as a teacher, I worry about my students. I worry about their physical health, about whether they have the knowledge and forethought to avoid pregnancy and STIs, but I also worry about their mental and emotional health. I wonder whether they have the skills to avoid abusive relationships. I wonder whether they have the self-awareness, the security and the confidence to distinguish between their own opinions and the pressures of our culture. I wonder whether they’ll be able to sort out their desires from their rational thoughts and have the presence of mind to make decisions that take both into account.

Students tell me stories. A lot. About pregnancy scares, nude photos, and the pros and cons of anal sex. Girls compare notes on the birth control implant: what it is and how it works. Students talk about some boys being players, some girls getting with everyone else’s boyfriends. They seem to be getting the basic medical information, from our school-based health center (which is amazing, with its full time nurse, mental health professional, and nurse practitioner), from Peer Health Exchange, from each other, or maybe just from the internet. But what’s missing, what true comprehensive sexuality education offers, is a platform to synthesize all of the medical information and then personalize it, to talk about what sexual behavior and mature relationships actually look and feel like, to discuss all of the hypotheticals and students’ very real experiences in a safe place with adults who will both listen to their whole story and have the expertise to guide them in analyzing their choices.

When I listen to the way my students talk, and I see the way they interact with each other –  they’re smart, they’re thoughtful, and for the most part, they’re very aware of the world. And so I’m less worried they’ll get pregnant when they don’t want to be or contract a debilitating illness. I’m concerned they’ll be victims or perpetrators of a sexual assault. I’m worried they’ll make decisions about sex based on stereotypes and cultural pressure, and not based on what they want and what they feel is best for them.

Opponents of Planned Parenthood and all that it does seem to argue that if people don’t have access to information about risky behaviors, or the services to mitigate the consequences of those behaviors, then they simply won’t engage in those risky behaviors. To me, it doesn’t make sense to assume that teenagers will ignore behavior that centuries of human evolution has programmed them to want, simply out of ignorance. Students are able make healthy choices when they have both an adequate supply of accurate medical information AND the space, time, and freedom to make sense of that information, process it, and decide how it relates to their values and their emerging sense of self.

I support comprehensive health education because it provides students with both the information they need and the space to process and understand that information. And I support the Healthy Youth Act because it guarantees that school based sexuality education will include that information and that space.

 

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