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Copious research shows that medically accurate sexual education courses reduce the risk of STDs and unplanned pregnancies among students—but some parents and administrators still fear that just talking about sex will lead teenagers astray.
Eight years ago, while Sameera Qureshi was working as an occupational therapist at an Islamic private school in Canada, she frequently overheard students bullying each other using sexually charged language. Schoolyard bullying is depressingly common among middle school and high school students—as is verbal sexual harassment—but the insults stood out in Qureshi's mind for another reason. She was surprised by the amount of inaccurate knowledge the teenagers had, and the myths they believed about the body and about intimacy: that menstruation was dirty, for example, or that using a tampon breaks the hymen, which in turn leads to the loss of virginity, or that boys can't control their emotions and sexual desires, while girls can.
When she looked into the curriculum, Qureshi realized there were no required sexual health classes. Concerned with these gaps in knowledge and understanding, she enlisted the help of the Islamic Studies staff at the school—and a local sexual health center—in order to develop a faith-based curriculum, one that acknowledged religious and cultural values around modesty, purity, and privacy. It was a success, and she eventually expanded to more schools. "What started from there became a passion of mine when I saw how dire the need was," says Qureshi.
Qureshi's experience isn't uncommon: According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, and only 13 states require it to be "medically accurate." In some states, there's a financial incentive to provide incomplete sexual education to students—the federal government bequeaths millions of dollars in funding to abstinence-only education programs per year. And in other cases, there is a lack of understanding about the intentions and benefits of comprehensive sexuality education.
With opponents of comprehensive sex ed believing that certain pieces of information are inappropriate, or that children should be learning about sex from their parents instead of in their schools—or even that learning about sex encourages more kids to have it, in turn leading to a greater number of teen pregnancies and STIs—it can be difficult to build a case for its need.
In late 2015, for instance, Angela Kennedy, the chair of the Toronto Catholic District School Board, vociferously opposed a new sex ed curriculum introduced by Ontario's government that taught students about consent, masturbation, gender expression, and the correct names for body parts, citing her Catholic beliefs: "Catholic schools shouldn't be forced to teach a program that doesn't ground the expression of sexuality in love and marriage," she said in a statement. But she publicly changed her position a year later, after learning that her stepson had been sexually abused as a child.
[My stepson] said he didn't have all the information. I don't know if having it would have protected him or not, but it's better to have the information than not.
Research shows that early childhood sexual education like this can protect students from sexual abuse, or at least make it more likely for them to report it, something Kennedy acknowledged. "[My stepson] said he didn't have all the information," she told the Toronto Star. "I don't know if having it would have protected him or not, but it's better to have the information than not."
Advocates stress that it's crucial to speak to parents and administrators about the positive impacts of healthy sexuality—and the negative impacts when sexual health is ignored. Research on comprehensive sexuality education programs has shown that they reduce the prevalence of risk behaviors that lead to STDs and unplanned pregnancy, and that they promote healthy relationships, which in turn reduces the risk of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. Meanwhile, research has shown that abstinence-only education is ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy, and may actually contribute to higher teen pregnancy rates.
In Qureshi's experience, in fact, comprehensive sex education tends to have an anti-aphrodisiac effect. "Information doesn't tend to spur curiosity," she says. "It quenches it."
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Of course, being prepared with facts, figures, and allies is only the beginning of what should be a much longer conversation, and often those who need the most convincing are parents, not administrators. In Toronto, Ontario, hundreds of parents pulled their kids from a first-grade sexual education class earlier this year because they thought the information presented—which included proper names for genitalia, rather than vague descriptors like "private parts"—were inappropriate. Similarly, parents in Utah recently demanded that sexual education videos shown to fifth grade students be censored, removing references to subjects like penis length, breast size, and "how thinking about girls or sexual things leads to erections."
Chris Thrasher, the senior vice president of behavioral health at Sharecare and a certified sexuality counselor and educator, emphasizes the need to work collaboratively with parents who are opposed to sex ed, rather than seeing them as simply antagonistic. He notes that most parents with conservative beliefs about sexuality have good intentions: "All parents want their kids to stay kids in perpetuity," he explains. "We want them to listen to us forever, to obey us forever, to take our advice forever."
As Thrasher sees it, it's extremely important that parents know educators are not taking away their role as their children's educators. "Ultimately, we want parents talking with their kids," he says. "That's the goal."
He recommends, for example, giving students reading assignments that allow them to choose from a diversity of resources, representing a diversity of viewpoints, which they can then use to initiate a conversation with their parents, effectively interviewing them about their beliefs. "What we know through science," says Thrasher, "is that parents are the greatest influencers of kids' behavior, but too often they don't feel comfortable or have the tools to communicate effectively."
Parents are the greatest influencers of kids' behavior, but too often they don't feel comfortable or have the tools to communicate effectively.
"Sexuality educators can be a bridge, helping students learn information and easing parents' fears," says Lindsay Cain, a doctoral candidate in human sexuality at Widener University. "If needed, we can reiterate that while we teach facts, values are instilled at home, reinforcing parents' role as a sexuality educator as well."
Qureshi notes that school administrators don't have all the answers, either, which is why it's so important to work holistically on the issue. "They wonder, Will I be teaching kids how to have sex? At what grade level will I teach them about different things? For both of those concerns, I've actually pulled the provincial curriculum, sat down grade by grade, and explained learning objectives. And I add a value-based lens to that. I think you have to be skilled at knowing how to alleviate people's concerns so, over time, I've developed those skills."
Whether seeking to find understanding from parents, administrators, or other community members, Thrasher says that finding common ground might not be easy, but it is possible. He speaks of his time working for Dr. David Satcher, the former Surgeon General of the United States, when they convened a national consensus process on sexual health and responsible sexual behavior. At the time, they put together people from different backgrounds, all across the political spectrum, with the intention of reaching consensus on what public policy was needed in the area of sexual health.
What Thrasher observed during this process led him to believe in what he refers to as radical inclusivity, a situation in which everyone has a seat at the table, regardless of their most deeply held beliefs. "We tend to agree on 90 percent of most issues, and disagree on 10 percent. But we focus 100 percent of our time on the 10 percent that we disagree on," he says. "I don't think you would have a problem getting people to say that they support preventing unintended pregnancy or that they support avoiding intimate partner violence or that they support building meaningful healthy relationships."
I don't think you would have a problem getting people to say that they support preventing unintended pregnancy or that they support avoiding intimate partner violence.
When it comes down to it, once schools have opened their doors to educators, the lessons they teach are directed, to an extent, by the students. No matter how the students view sex and sexuality, it's not the place of the educator to tell them what's right or wrong. "A lot of the kids I've worked with buy into waiting, into being abstinent before marriage," says Qureshi, "yet a lot of them at the same time do things they didn't feel good about: They engage in sexting, watch pornography, have intimate relationships. I don't tell them what to do, but I encourage them to ask themselves: Why am I making the choices I'm making? Are they healthy? How do I feel about them?"
"Their parents are not talking to them this way," continues Qureshi. "They just say: Don't do this. It's wrong. I admit, I can't give you all the answers, but please think about this. It gives them a few more tools in their toolbox when they're making decisions."
As far as limitations within the curriculum, Qureshi insists that educators can always find a way to convey the information that is most important. "If we define sexual health in its broadest manner," she says, "information can be incorporated in different ways. I think it's about maybe breaking this notion of sex education down into components that can be related to someone's everyday functioning."
And when kids have questions about topics that are not typically permissible within the context of the curriculum they're working with, or the school they're working within? "We would never leave kids hanging," says Qureshi. "We would never want to defer them to the internet. If kids ask questions, we have to answer them. Morally, if we don't, we know what's going to happen."
When Qureshi was young, her parents opted out of allowing her to attend her school's sex ed classes. " I remember my parents having The Talk with me, which lasted about 10 minutes," she says. "My mother recognizes now, seeing what I do, that she could have given me more information. But she was just doing what she was taught as a young girl. I think we need to realize that everyone has a reason behind their behaviors and actions, and we don't know what they are."
Like Thrasher, Qureshi emphasizes the importance of seeking out the common human values we share. "We need to understand that the range of what we've been exposed to is different," she says. "Trying to understand how others came to have their values can help. That's a really tough thing to do, I think."
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