Take a minute and recall the song from Schoolhouse Rock, Conjunction Junction. “Conjunction, junction what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” But what if the train conductor said, “Hooking up boys and girls for sexual intercourse!”? While this is clearly a joke about sex education in public schools, it calls attention to the awkward balance between teaching abstinence and sexual safety. Once students reach the college level, however, they are in need of a more comprehensive approach to the touchy topic.[inter11]
Instead of choosing to teach strictly abstinence or physical sex education, many groups are prioritizing healthy relationships where students can be comfortable choosing whatever sexual activity is best for them. While religious groups may prioritize abstinence and medical establishments may favor sexual education, both sides seem to be in agreement that students deserve to know the options available to them.[barb]
Many students believe in the importance of choice over being forced to make a sexual decision based on information chosen by someone else. “What would have been helpful to me in high school is if I were taught all of my options, not only the options my high school wanted me to know about,” hospitality business junior Kelly Brumagin said. “If each student is educated about the sexual options they have, each student can make an informed decision on their own sexuality.” Just because they are given the same information does not mean all students will make the same decision.
Not all school districts conduct the same curricula for sexual education. Wendy Sellers, comprehensive school health coordinator for Eaton Intermediate School District, explained there is little to no standard for public schools. “Every school district has the right to determine what is and is not taught in sex education. The only topic that must be covered is HIV and AIDS prevention. Other than that, schools can teach a very comprehensive sexual curriculum or none at all.” Michigan is the fourth most conservative state in the nation when it comes to sexual education, with many subjects being restricted from discussion. “Schools may not discuss the option of abortions, they may not dispense contraceptive devices to their students and every lesson must ultimately stress abstinence as the ideal sexual choice,” Sellers said.
While Michigan is often seen as a liberal state, its sex education policies are altered for a more conservative population. The only thing beyond abstinence high school students are taught is reproductive health. Think about it. Did your gym teacher test you on the physical aspects of a climax? Did an administrator give out any masturbation tips? You will not find a high school in Michigan that teaches its students these sometimes embarrassing but completely natural and healthy topics.
In 2005, the state underwent a major overhaul of its sexual education policies. But instead of loosening its restraints, it tightened them. The new policies about sexual education emphasize the role the parents must play in sexual education, and once again stress the failproof method of abstinence. It’s obvious that in high school, the importance of healthy relationships is rarely at the top of the list in the sex education department. Instead, there is an emphasis on abstinence and only a few legitimate sexual safety tips. No matter how ardently abstinence may be imposed, teaching it rarely results in graduating classes of virgins. “U.S. teens are having just as much sex as those students in foreign countries, yet are contracting more diseases,” said Brit Osbern, a teaching assistant in communication. “There is a myth in the U.S. that educating students about sex will encourage them to partake in it. This simply isn’t the case.” The priority needs to be to make sure teens are aware of all their options, not to push one view over another – agenda-pushing doesn’t fly when it comes to sex.
[sham]”The best thing to do is discuss relationships and communication,” said Erin Williston, a health educator at Olin’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion. “That is the kind of information students aren’t getting from their middle school or high school sexual education courses.”
To supplement what students may already know, the Olin Health Center works diligently to educate MSU students on sexual relations on a college level. “We try to give a comprehensive overview of sexual activity, including the option of abstinence, but also more taboo subjects, such as sexual pleasure,” Williston said. “We know that 25 percent of MSU students choose not to be sexually active while 75 percent of students do. We want to make sure that everyone has access to all the information they need in order to make an informed decision.”
One of Olin’s largest obstacles is teaching students what high school education left out of the equation. These topics run the gamut of sexual discussion: masturbation, homosexuality, abortion, the importance of communication in healthy relationships and how to find pleasure through your own sexuality. “It would make my job a lot easier if high schools would teach a truly comprehensive curriculum,” Williston said.
Many of those who promote abstinence claim it stems from the importance of saving one’s “purity” for marriage. Christian and many other religious groups believe the act of sex parallels the consummation of a marriage, and, under these circumstances, it may be difficult for students to realize the implications of their decisions. “Marriage is seen as a reflection between God and the Church, and the depth of that intimacy, and that depth can’t be duplicated outside of marriage,” said Hillary Reddick, Campus Crusade for Christ representative. “It is the sacredness of marriage that many Christians consider when deciding to remain abstinent.” This is the reason many Christian teens sign “purity promises” through youth groups or exchange promise rings with their parents.
“Abstinence should be taught in schools and I think most MSU Christians would agree with me,” Reddick said. “Not for the sake of spreading Christianity, but for students to learn all viewpoints. And research has supported the fact that it’s more effective to teach people abstinence in conjunction with safe sex, instead of just the latter. MSU students deserve to have all sexual activity options taught to them, and this includes abstinence.”
Sellers does not deny there can be a religious influence to abstinence teachings. “Religious groups have a huge investment in promoting abstinence for religious and moral reasons. They will sponsor groups to go into schools and talk about abstinence. For some schools, this comprises their sexual education, but most use it as a supplement to their existing curriculum,” Sellers said. “Many times, religious groups promoting abstinence use scare tactics, spending a lot of time discussing the dangers of sex and failure rates of condoms, instead of positive skills to abstain. If kids are taught condoms may not be effective, then they are less likely to use them.” However, it is not just the schools using religious teachings who are under-preparing their students for sexual encounters. “Even the most comprehensive curriculum in high school is not going to prepare students properly for college, particularly if you consider abundance of alcohol and unintended sexual activity college life can promote,” Sellers said.[hill]
To further supplement this one-sided view, sex is usually represented as both dirty (Penises, ick! Vaginas, ew!) and meant for marriage. Obviously, the implications of these two concepts are nothing short of comical when interpreted together: save the most disgusting thing your body could ever perform to share with your one and only. Kids are taught to think only the person who would marry them can put up with the messiness that sex can produce. Wouldn’t it be easier (and cleaner) to spend what would be sex time at Pottery Barn?
As students become more mature and sexually knowledgeable through their college years, the importance of communicative relationships is trumping the high school black-and-white world of sex education versus abstinence education. “I would love to see more age-appropriate sex education in all schools: elementary, middle and high school,” Williston said. “This includes what is a good relationship, how to communicate and deciding if sex is the right choice for them.” Different groups may have different priorities about what is important to teach students, but ultimately, many are choosing not to side with solely abstinence or sexual education, but with informing students of all their options so they are capable of making their own choices. In the words of the red-headed kid from Schoolhouse Rock, “Knowledge is Power!”