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Sex Ed: California Going Forward
California teachers have a brand-new framework for teaching sex education, but not everyone is happy. LGBTQ advocates praise the new recommendations for including communities that are often left out of sex education, but other parents and conservative groups consider the document an assault on parental rights. They fear the new curriculum exposes children to ideas about sexuality and gender that should be taught at home. Yes, the guide includes tips for discussing masturbation with middle-schoolers, reassuring them it is not physically harmful. The guide also advises transgender teens on how to cope with puberty. Above the specific details is the overarching focus of teaching students how to navigate healthy relationships with others and with oneself. Michele McNutt, mother of two daughters aged 11 and 9, avidly endorsed the new curriculum: “Withholding medically accurate, scientific information actually causes more harm and does not protect innocence. If you don’t give kids accurate information about their own body…how are they able to make good choices?” Beyond sex education, the new course extends and supports those “good choices” with traditional health-education subjects such as nutrition, physical activity, and combating alcohol and drug abuse. Still, some parents—and even teachers—rail against the course content. They prefer to keep their children in the dark. Thankfully California continues going forward.
MODERNIZING SEX EDUCATION
Excerpted by Connie Di Cristina from:
“Momentum Is Building to Modernize Sex Education” by Catherine Brown and Abby Quirk
Lauren Atkins, a high school student from Norman, Oklahoma, was sexually assaulted by a classmate in 2017. In response, she collaborated with state lawmakers to write legislation that she believes would have prevented her attack. “I really don’t think he did this to be a terrible human being,” she said. “He didn’t know that this wasn’t allowed.” How could the perpetrator have been so confused? Lauren’s response was to advocate for more extensive and specific sex education in schools to combat the seduction of social media.
We are nearly half-way there. Only 24 of our 50 states mandate sex education. As of May, 2018, only 11 states and Washington, D.C., included references to healthy relationships, consent, or sexual assault. One year later, the number has grown to 21 states, and legislation is pending in six more. Students like Lauren and the newly elected female lawmakers are leading the way on this issue.
In addition to adding explicit language about consent and healthy relationships, four states (California, Missouri, New Jersey, and Wyoming) have enacted legislation to include discussion of the legal and emotional consequences of sharing explicit material through digital media. Sexting is rampant. In 2009, approximately 4% of 12- to 17-year-olds in the US had sent a sexually explicit message. In 2018, that number had more than tripled. Girls report feeling more pressure to send explicit content, and often their texts are sent on to others without their permission. Social pressure to engage in these actions can have devastating consequences, even suicide. It is imperative that every sex-education class include discussions regarding online consent and coercion.
LGBTQ youth have perhaps the most need for information and tools to stay healthy. According to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are less likely to use condoms than heterosexual youth. They report their first sexual intercourse before 13, and are more likely to encounter physical dating violence, including forced sexual intercourse. LGBTQ youth also face unique forms of coercion such as the threat of being outed. Teachers must provide students with strategies to address the issues of consent and abusive behavior. Fortunately, California recently updated its sex education guidance to help teachers discuss gender identity as early as kindergarten and to give LGBTQ-specific advice about healthy relationships and safe sex.
One factor behind the growing momentum for changes to sex education standards may be student activism, as young people have bolstered most of the recent bills that have been proposed and enacted. Students have spoken about their personal experiences and the difference that better sex education could have made in their lives. Female legislators have also had an outsize impact on this issue. One-third of all bills currently moving through the legislative process were introduced by women who began their tenures in 2019. Yet, there is still more work to do. Topics of consent must reflect the ways in which today’s young people interact, and discussions about healthy relationships are incomplete if they do not represent a diverse array of relationships.