Let’s Talk About Sex
10 weeks after Nia and her partner decided to have sex for the first time, she found out that she was pregnant. Nia had only two options — have the child or have an abortion.
Nia is a current student at Tam that would like to remain anonymous. It seemed that despite completing the multiple required units of sex ed, Nia was ill-equipped. “I had put the condom inside out. I don’t even know how that happened.” Nia decided to have an abortion with the help of her friend, who made the appointment at Planned Parenthood for her.
“This really impacted my life in many ways. Now [I’m] keeping a secret from my parents…one that still haunts me to this day. My family and I are very religious, [so the abortion] was a really big and sad moment in my life. Waking up knowing that a dumb little mistake had changed my life in such a big way, gets to me, and it’s something I wouldn’t want any other girl to go through,” Nia said. Reflecting on her experience and her sex education, Nia said if she had better education and knowledge of options, such as the morning after pill, the pregnancy could have been prevented.
Nia wasn’t able to find support at home either. “My parents think I’ll follow the whole no sex until marriage thing. I was afraid to bring it up and I knew my parents would be more angry than supportive.”
Nia’s experience with sex was very different than what she first envisioned it as. “I was just not physically and emotionally ready for something like this. Before I thought sex was just an astonishing moment I would cherish for the rest of my life, but now I view it as something risky and frightening.”
Tam provides the freshman class a sex ed unit in their social Issues class that can last anywhere from one week or three weeks, depending on the teachers preference. However, many students have expressed that it should be taught and talked about more during all four years of high school and do not feel very satisfied with the overall sex ed unit currently taught. In the U.S., the average teen loses his/her virginity at the age of seventeen. Freshman range from 14 to 15 years old. It seems antithetical to end sex ed two to three years before most students begin to have sex.
In a survey of 295 students from all grade levels conducted in 2017 by the Tam News students were asked if they found the Social Issues sexual education unit at Tam helpful during their freshman year. 41% of the students said no. When reflecting on the sex ed class, 52.4% of students said they reviewed old information and concepts, while 43.3% said they learn a few new concepts and information. Only 4.3% of students said they learn mostly new concepts and information in the class.
“I think Tam’s program is alright as far as the factual parts of it, but could be improved,” sophomore Aeron Becker said. “We don’t talk much about the social aspects, I feel.” While another student, who would like to remain anonymous, said, “I didn’t even know we had a sex ed program.”
In the survey, students were asked to list the top areas that the freshmen sex education curriculum sufficiently informed them about. 74.5% of the students said they were sufficiently informed about STDs, while Condoms was the runner up at 68.1%, and Consent came in at 65.1%.
Another question in the survey was, “What topics would you want further education about from Tam?” The top five responses were: Sexual assault at 54.6%, Rape at 54.6%, Birth Control at 51.9%, Healthy Relationships at 51.4%, and Healthy Decision-making at 48.6 %.
So the question is, “Do Tam students want more sex ed?” The short answer is, “Yes.” At Tam, 68.4% of students said yes to wanting more sex education.
However, there are a few students who disagree and do not want more sex ed at Tam but to improve the current one. An asexual student, who would like to remain anonymous because she has not come out publicly, voiced her opinion on why she thinks Tam should not have more sex ed, but rather it should offer a better adapted version. “I think that by Junior or Senior year people have either had sex or watched enough porn to know what’s going on. Also, we have been fully educated on what and what not to do, and if somebody didn’t want to pick it up in freshman year they won’t want to learn anything Junior/Senior year. I think what we have is fine, every teacher teaches a little differently, but the required curriculum is good.” However, she would change parts of the sex ed unit to something with a more greater focus on a person’s rights and the social aspect of sex. “I think the sex ed program in high school should be more about identity and your rights as a person, as well as the connection and implications that sex can have. We already learned about all the STIs/STDs/risks in middle school, but sex also has an affect on our social lives or how we view ourselves, so I think we should learn more about that, especially because high school is a time of change and growth for a lot of people, so we should be informed of how sex can be a part of that if we wish to partake in it.”
Today, many students are exposed to graphic and sensitive images and information such as pornography, which could affect how someone might view sex. However, in school, students are not taught how to navigate such things on the internet. According to the New york Times, “93% of males and 62% of females in college reported having seen porn as adolescents, according to a 2008 study from the University of New Hampshire.” On average, boys see porn for the first time when they are thirteen and girls when they are fourteen.
Studies show that porn has a similar effect on brain functions as drugs do. According to Marripedia, “A significant relationship also exists between frequent pornography use and feelings of loneliness, including major depression. Frequent pornography consumption alters the brain in ways similar to the neurological alterations of those addicted to cocaine, alcohol, and methamphetamines.”
Many Tam students say that one of the main ways teenagers educated themselves about sex is through watching porn. According to multiple studies, porn has a negative effect on mental health. A professor of psychology at the University of Saskatchewan, Todd G. Morrison, conducted a study that showed that teens who watch porn with high frequency have lower sexual self-esteem.
A male junior that would like to remain anonymous continues talking about the effects of porn and how it influences students,“You have a 12 year old addicted to porn, yet he’s never had a sexual experience before. He doesn’t know what sex is. He thinks sex is what he sees and he sees some weird ass crap on a porn website right, and he thinks thats was it is.”
Students are looking for answers and information about sex through porn, but it is taking a toll on their mental state of mind, lowering their self esteem. “If you’re talking about insecurities, why would you as a kid [watch porn], especially because of all the media we’re presented and it’s not just porn, it’s any media. You’re already trying to look good, you’re already trying to impress people, right? If you feel that you can’t live up to that standard without porn, it’s already hard enough.” he said.
Recently, in the media there has been more and more talk about sexual harassment and people coming forth about their case that could influence a student’s views on sex and how one treats a person. It can also be a reminder that not all students know the definition of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. In a survey conducted by the Tam News last school year with the participation of 620 students, 54.7% of the students failed to define rape properly.
This is a huge failure of sexual education at Tam, and one that can make it easier for students to misunderstand the difference between consensual sex, sexual assault, and rape, according to one student who wanted to remain anonymous. “Sexual assault and rape is a huge issue. As a victim of rape myself, I know firsthand how much of a grey area it is not only legally, but in daily life. There needs to be a stern line between sexual actions, and assault. Otherwise you’ll always have stories like mine…,” she said.
The student now believes that a more comprehensive sexual education curriculum might have prevented her from being raped. “My attack occurred in the summer after 8th grade, the [same] year we got our first real sex education class. I knew the assailant had completed similar sex education class, but reflecting on the course, nothing was said about a clear definition of rape. Until you have the experience of PTSD, the flashbacks, visual, auditory and physical sensations of the attack coming back over and over, it’s hard to fathom the real effect of such an action on a person. I often find myself wondering if the school had really gone in depth about rape, how to protect yourself and how to recognize a dangerous situation before it’s too late, maybe I wouldn’t be in my current situation,” she said. “Education Freshman year was similar to 8th grade, but with a focus more on drugs and STDs. Around that time I was beginning to think of telling my parents what happened, but I didn’t have the confidence. If the school had taught about options for victims and took the viewpoint that there could be a victim in every class who is scared to come forward, so many lives could be improved. Rape should not be hidden away. Maybe some families think it shameful, but as I’ve learned, it’s never the victim’s fault. We need to address it, and take action to eradicate it if we have any hope of improving our society.”
In 2016, California attempted to improve its current sex education by passing California Assembly Bill 329, which mandates that all public school students between grades 7-12 take a sexual education class, which includes learning the definition and real-world examples of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. California has more requirements than any other state; the state mandates sexual education and HIV education to all of its students. It also requires sexual education classes to be medically accurate, age appropriate, culturally appropriate and unbiased, and the classes cannot promote religion.
In the US, only 24 states plus the District of Columbia mandate sexual education, only 13 of which, including California, require that the program be medically accurate. 34 states plus DC mandate HIV education. Out of the 37 states that cover abstinence, 25 of the states stress it. “In the US, we’ve tended to focus exclusively on the dangers of sex. Parents, educators and health care providers warn young people against the risks of sex and heartbreak, but unfortunately that does not give them the tools to navigate the territory of sexuality and relationships in a healthy way,” Amy Schalet, an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts and author of “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex,” said.
Across the US, states that don’t require any sexual education, including Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, have the highest teen birth rates in the country. The national average of teen births of females between the ages of 15-19 has been trending downwards over the past several decades and is currently 22.3 births per 1,000 teen girls However, the US continues to have one of the highest teen birth rates of all developed nations.
Only two states, Louisiana and California, are not allowed to promote religion. The US is generally more conservative in its teachings versus European countries, which have a more liberal point of view and are more open to giving students the resources they need and ongoing support.
In Europe, 24 out of 50 countries mandate a sexual education program. Europe overall has the world’s lowest teen birth rates. Within Europe, the countries with the lowest reported teen births are Italy, Germany, and Switzerland with only four births out of a 1,000 girls, followed by Sweden, France, Netherlands, Denmark, and Belgium, which have five to six births per 1,000 girls. When comparing the US and the Netherlands together, Schalet makes the point, “One important cause for the difference between the two countries is that US teens are much more likely to grow up in poverty than Dutch teens, and when young people grow up without access to quality education, jobs, and health care, they are more likely to become pregnant at young ages. But poverty is not the whole story. One of the statistics that I point out is that in the Netherlands, 6 out of 10 teenage girls are on the pill at first intercourse versus only about 1 in 5 in the US.”
In Mill Valley, the conversation about sex starts as young as fifth grade, with “Family Life.” “Family Life” is a unit where fifth grade students learn about puberty and the changes of the human body as they mature. In the 8th grade, students receive a more in depth sexual education, where they learn about STIs, different types of protection, anatomy, gender, and sexual orientation. The following year, Tam requires all freshman to take Social Issues, which includes a one to three week course on sexual education commonly referred to as sex ed. According to the Tamalpais Union High School District (TUHSD) description and requirements of the Social Issues class, “The purpose of this course is to provide all students with a clear understanding of their individual rights and responsibilities as they enter young adulthood.” Tam does not teach sex ed after this unit.
Many teachers and parents at Tam expressed that there should be more sex education for the students and improve the current one. Social Issues teacher Shawn Weber believes that the school should have sex ed beyond freshman year. “I think the current sex ed program is covered, but perhaps not entirely well enough, in the freshman year during Social Issues. Although there is a mandated guide of topics to be covered that the district provides, there is typically not enough time or resources available to cover sex ed in its entirety – e.g., covering gender identity, safe sexual practices, etc.,” Weber said. “I think these issues should be covered more in school – particularly the issues of consensual [and] non consensual sex – because, as we have recently seen in our nationwide news cycle, this is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed. Students also need to be made aware of their rights and not be intimidated from speaking out about these issues.”
Luc Chamberlin, another Social Issues teacher at Tam, went more in depth on how the structure of the class works. “All of the district’s courses are listed for the public at the same website. …You’ll notice it’s just a list of topics to learn about. Taking that list and making a class out of it is up to the teacher,” he said. When asked if it was hard and or uncomfortable to teach sex ed, Chamberlin said, “No one wants to talk about sex in class. I tend to focus more on the relationship and emotional side which I have found students haven’t done much thinking about prior. I prefer to bring in a Planned Parenthood speaker if for no other reason than to give kids a different person to speak with if they would like. At a public school, it is very difficult to force any kid to learn about sex. Their parents have an absolute right to withdraw them from that unit if the parents prefer. And even if they don’t, it is a very touchy subject that I find myself walking on eggshells.”
Teachers can ask Planned Parenthood to discuss any topic with the students that they themselves have not yet covered in class or do not feel comfortable talking about. According to Chamberlin, Social Issues teachers don’t get any training for sex ed before being expected to teach it, and instead must rely on their training and experience as educators to design and teach the unit themselves, using the district’s curriculum of the class as a guideline.
Integrated Science teacher Suzanne Garcia talks about how she views the unit through a biological point of view. In her Integrated Science 3-4 class, Garcia has taken it upon herself to spend a day teaching sexual reproduction, drugs and addition to her classes. Before the class she asked her students to write down any questions they had about the three topics and basing her presentation on what the students wanted to learn about. “Given that I teach science, I have a lot of baseline knowledge about the physical and hormonal changes that take place during puberty and the biological impacts of STIs. I have absolutely no problem teaching and talking about sex and sexual health. However, teachers of other subjects may not feel comfortable giving instruction about a subject they don’t know much about (from a biological perspective).”
Reflecting on the overall sex ed program, Garcia said that “in general, I think sex education programs at most schools are insufficient. Sex ed doesn’t always do a good job of differentiating for teens who are sexually active verses teens who are not sexually active. Or at addressing the temporal changes in teen sexual behavior. I would argue that teen sexual behavior changes over the course of high school. Students are often left to remember information from freshman year that may not apply to the current and pressing issues in their lives as they develop sexual relationships.”
Although the topic is not widely talked about in school, teachers and the administration think it is important to keep the dialogue going. “Students need to be aware of their bodies and how it functions so that they can make good decisions about sex, health and wellness,” Principal J.C. Farr said. “Our responsibility as educators is to provide students with the knowledge to think critically regarding all topics, including sex.”
“I think consistently engaging students in conversation about sex is never a bad thing. Society is changing, along with taboos about sex, so more dialogue is needed to help students navigate the changes with adult guidance. Social media is having a profound impact and students need to learn more to help navigate sex in the age of social media,” Farr added.
According to math and English teacher Eva Rieder, who recently spoke out at a district board meeting about alleged sexual harassment from male students, “We live in a society that still sends mixed messages to youth—that one’s sexuality is either glamorous, or dangerous and/or shameful. I wouldn’t agree with either of these ideas. Sexuality is completely natural, healthy, and normal—but, it is also imperative that people be respectful of it through their actions and choices. However, juniors and seniors about to become legal adults are also at a different cognitive level than freshmen, and thus they have a whole slew of new and relevant issues that they are not only ready for, but that will apply to them even more than before. Hearing this information one time in one year is not going to be thoroughly remembered, and like many lessons in education, it should be repeated [or] re-approached for that very reason.”
Often, it is schools that teach students the biology, intricacies, and dangers of sex including assault, gender identity, and the importance of protection. Ideally, parents support and educate students by helping them navigate the emotional, mental, and moral pitfalls that often come along with becoming sexually active. “When parents and other trusted adults are able to provide guidance around questions of what does it mean to be ready and to give and receive respect in a relationship, then youth will be less likely to rely on unrealistic and unhealthy media portrayals to help them understand how they should behave with regard to this part of their life,” Schalet said.
Mark Nelson, the Assistant Principal of MVMS, talks about the balance schools and parents should have when teaching students about sex education. “Parents have the biggest role with their child. It is the school’s responsibility to educate kids about reproduction, diseases, pregnancies, statistics, relationships, etc., and to provide a safe space to discuss issues with kids, but with regards to when kids should be sexually active and the role it plays in relationships should be a family discussion and decision.”
“Nobody knows the child better than the parent,” Suzi Cadle Andrews, a parent of a student at Tam and faculty member at Mill Valley Middle School (MVMS), said. “It’s important that parents establish an open line of communication so that the child feels safe coming to mom/dad with a question or a concern. I think it’s okay for parents to leave some of the ‘how does it work’ stuff to the teacher, but must be clear and open that no topic is off-limits and the child can come to them with anything.”
Recently, Tam has started to look at students sexual education beyond the classroom. On December 8th, Tam High Peer Resources offered a Condom Availability Program (CAP) as part of a “Feel Good Friday” lunch. Students could get condom certified by proving they know how to properly put on a condom by sorting step-by-step cards into the right order or by putting a condom on a wooden dildo for educational purposes, and upon certification were provided with a care-package with condoms, a definition of consent, Planned Parenthood address, and directions on how to properly put on a condom in both English and Spanish. The goal of CAP was to educate the Tam community about safer sex and to encourage it. “I think that the CAP training was very effective. We had many people get certified and I believe it was an overall success,” Junior Isaac Goon Perl, a member of Peer Resource, said.
Besides Peer Resources the school is also considering new ideas on how better to educate students about sex. “We are starting our first ever Sexual Health Clinic Feb 16th in the nurse’s office,” Hannah Wright, Tam’s Wellness Center counselor, said, “Here, services are free and confidential and students can get free STI testing, pregnancy testing, birth control, and sexual health information. In addition, Peer Resource and Social Issues have curriculum around these topics and it is my hope we can have peer mentors educating each other on these topics since they can be so sensitive,” Wright said. “Also, in the wellness center there are many brochures and books on these topics that students are welcome to use. We will have free sexual health clinics every third Friday in the nurse’s office. These services will be free and confidential. I think that providing this free service is part of the harm reduction model and important option to offer high schoolers.” Wright further expressed that the school should have a health and sexual health curriculum all four years in high school.
It is clear that the majority of Tam students want some form of continued sexual education beyond what is currently offered at Tam. Students are growing up in a very different world than their parents and today’s constant exposure to social media combined with a new moral code of acceptance and empowerment needs to be discussed in a safe learning environment beyond 9th grade curriculum.