Opinion: Sex education should not spread shame and stigma

October 8, 2015:
DeKalb uses a comprehensive- based curriculum known as FLASH, which is endorsed by healthcare advocates. The school system dropped the controversial, abstinence based curriculum know as “Choosing the Best” 12 years ago after parents criticized the program for not fully informing students. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Andrea Swartzendruber is an assistant professor in the epidemiology and biostatistics department in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on adolescent and women’s sexual and reproductive health.

In this piece, Swartzendruber discusses the risks of abstinence-only sex education programs.

By Andrea Swartzendruber

As school starts again, many districts across Georgia will continue to endanger students in sexual education classrooms. Abstinence-only sex education programs do not prevent high school students from having sex. Instead abstinence-only programs cause harm to students. The programs may have long-term negative effects on students who have experienced sexual assault, due to the stigmatizing and shaming ways they discuss sex.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in 10 girls and one in 33 boys reported ever being forced to have sexual intercourse in the most recent national survey of high school students.

Unfortunately, many Georgia school districts turn a blind eye to these statistics and the needs of students who have experienced sexual assault, potentially traumatizing students again through abstinence-only sex education. “Choosing The Best,” a curriculum commonly used in Georgia, teaches that people who have sex before marriage – 95 percent of U.S. adults – are not “pure.” Some activities suggest that sex before marriage renders people tainted, worthless, and unwanted. Imagine how these messages are received by students who have experienced sexual assault.

Such damaging messages can prevent individuals from reporting abuse and have lasting consequences. Many abstinence-only programs reinforce harmful gender stereotypes and give females responsibility for male sexual feelings – potentially blaming sexual assault victims and excusing perpetrators. They do not even acknowledge that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth exist, let alone that they experience high levels of violence, trauma, and discrimination.

Former students in Georgia are speaking out about the lasting negative effects their abstinence-only education had on their lives, health, and wellbeing. One former student discussed a lesson comparing virginity to a flower in which students were told “no one wants a flower who has no petals.” She told The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “…I cannot express the amount of damage this did to me…”

An abundance of evidence supports parents’ and students’ calls to stop teaching abstinence-only sex ed. They often contain scientifically inaccurate information and undermine confidence in birth control and condoms. Fear tactics do not work. Abstinence-only programs do not delay initiation of sexual activity or reduce sexual risk behavior. In fact, they may discourage sexually active adolescents from using contraceptives, increasing their risk of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy.

Nationally, about 40 percent of high school students have had sex. Given Georgia’s numerous abortion restrictions, failing to adequately educate students about preventing pregnancy may essentially promote teen childbearing. Withholding complete and accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health violates students’ rights and puts them in danger.

Schools should be safe places for all students. School culture should reflect respect and acceptance. The goal of sex education should be promoting health for all students.

Sex education should recognize that sexual assault and trauma are widespread and actively protect students from being traumatized again by creating physical and emotional safety in the classroom, avoiding shaming and stigmatizing language, creating opportunities for support, striving for collaboration between educators and students, and preparing and empowering students to achieve sexual health over the course of their lives.

To address sexual violence, the CDC recommends promoting healthy sexuality through comprehensive sex education as part of a core set of evidence-based strategies. Comprehensive sex education programs teach that abstinence, contraceptives, and condoms protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. They also help students explore their values and goals and improve communication and interpersonal skills. The evidence is clear: comprehensive sex education works. It effectively reduces sexual risk behaviors and prevents teen pregnancy.

Open and honest discussion, a positive and respectful approach to sexuality, and scientifically accurate information promote sexual health, a fundamental component of overall health. Inclusive sex education acknowledges sexual diversity, that sex isn’t always a choice, and the benefits of respectful intimate relationships. It is humanizing and encourages peacemaking – and better promotes student health.

As the new school year begins, districts should remove judgement, shaming, and misinformation from sex ed curricula and work to protect and promote the health of all students.

 

 

Reader Comments 0

31 comments
Moreofthesame
Moreofthesame

and from the opposite side of the coin, during health class in 9th grade, the teacher asked when you should have sex.  When my daughter answered "When you're in love", the teacher laughed at her.  Most of the other kids seemed to view sex more as a sport or a fun activity.  As the article states "Schools should be safe places for all students. School culture should reflect respect and acceptance". My daughter did not feel respected at all.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

As part of my master's program, I compared the rates of teen pregnancy, STD's, and abortions in sex-ed school programs that were broken down into 4 levels (1 being abstinence only to 4 being fully comprehensive). Invariably, whatever way you diced it, the more comprehensive the program the lower the rates of teen pregnancy, etc... When confounding factors such as low SES, race, etc... were taken into account the results were clear and confirmed the benefits of a comprehensive program that taught both safe sex and abstinence.  I also investigated the programs that are in place in 3 other developed nations and found that their attitudes towards teaching comprehensive and fully rounded sex-ed programs in schools were protective against teen pregnancy. 


Yes, attitudes and values matter and should be taught at home. Protective factors like a strong relationship with parents, teachers, pastors, being active in sports and other extra-curricular activities (no, not teen sex) are also important. 


Unfortunately, instead of being smart about what we offer our kids in the way of protecting themselves from risky behaviors, we have allowed the agenda to be highjacked by a group that believes in abstinence only. Some of the materials used in schools are truly disturbing and are bent towards putting the onus on the girl to keep herself pure and untarnished. A video used in one school showed a girl going to the school nurse to explain that her boyfriend wanted her to have sex and what should she do. the nurse told her "I guess you have to be prepared to die".   We can do better than this. 

Astropig
Astropig

@sneakpeakintoeducation


"A video used in one school showed a girl going to the school nurse to explain that her boyfriend wanted her to have sex and what should she do. the nurse told her "I guess you have to be prepared to die"


Citation,please.I don't believe this at all.Try to be a little more subtle with your scare stories for them to be plausible.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

@Astropig @sneakpeakintoeducation


Jennifer L. Greenblatt, "If You Don't Aim to Please, Don't Dress to Tease," and Other Public School Sex Education Lessons Subsidized by You, the Federal Taxpayer, 14 TEX. J. C.L. & C.R. 1 (2008). 


I am glad you are as alarmed as I am that our children are being exposed to this type of messaging. It also explains why the federal government put incentives into place to push abstinence only. Now that we know it is harmful and backward thinking, we should ensure that all schools have a fully comprehensive and protective sex-ed program in place. 


Astropig
Astropig

@sneakpeakintoeducation @Astropig


Medical professionals don't say things like this.I still call BS. (And I have two med pros in my family and a neighborhood full of them,some of which I watched grow up and teach to hit the curveball).



LegolasMirkwood
LegolasMirkwood

@Astropig @sneakpeakintoeducation Told a nurse I didn't like taking pills/medications when asked about blood pressure medication.  "Sure, Ok."


180 over 125 haha.  I was actually allergic to the BP meds they offered, I guess I just found the Mormon one.


And there is ALWAYS that one hiding in the midst of the rest.

DawgNole
DawgNole

@Astropig

So why ask for a citation if you're still going to "call BS"?

Open your mind to opposing viewpoints.

Astropig
Astropig

@DawgNole @Astropig


Anecdotes are not data.This is BS.I'm open to anyone with a better idea on this subject,but I haven't seen one here yet.But I don't for a minute believe that the medical community thinks this way.Maybe one person said something stupid,outside official policy,but this is a slur on dedicated medical personnel. Yes-I still call BS.

SMCATL
SMCATL

@Astropig @sneakpeakintoeducation Right, Astropig. Sane medical professionals don't say things like this. But in the script of this film that is part of an abstinence-only curriculum, the school nurse said it to a student. That's a message that is not only nasty but nutty.

Astropig
Astropig

This is a great example of why the state makes terrible surrogate parents:This is a discussion and education process that should begin in the home,with a dialogue between parents and children that love one another unconditionally and have no ulterior motives for their opinions or beliefs.


I used to think that (because parents were neglecting this necessary,but maybe uncomfortable educational process) it was probably best if we had some rudimentary,age appropriate teaching of this facet of children s development in our schools.Approached from a non-judgemental,purely biological perspective,this could be the best thing for young,teachable adolescents.


But now I'm not so sure.Like anything promoted by rabid statists,they start out all warm and fuzzy with laudable goals and end up with the most radical "movement activists" taking over the narrative.Thus it is today (IMHO).


There is simply no way for the kind of people that get worked up about this subject (both on the left and the right) to avoid veering into the moral aspects of human sexuality.And there's the rub with me.Like any one-size-fits-all narrative,certain aspects of the curriculum will find themselves in conflict with strongly held beliefs and faiths that teach differently.One side or the other has to prevail,and I'm really uncomfortable with the coercive power of the state informing anyone on morals,ethics or practices.After reading a few years of comments in this space from teachers,I wouldn't trust such an important subject to the public schools if I could possibly avoid it.

altAJC2
altAJC2

@Astropig 

... Keeping in mind, of course, that the comments you've seen here over the years may or may not be from actual teachers.

Astropig
Astropig

@altAJC2 @Astropig


I have to take them at their word, I guess.


But there are some that visit here regularly that I wouldn't want to have any influence whatsoever on my kids.They hate parents,they hate true diversity of thought or opinion..They just hate.Gotta keep those folks away from people that you'll have to live with for the rest of your life.


Luckily for me,they are all grown up now and only one is still in (graduate) school.But he's much more likely to change them, than they, him.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Astropig @altAJC2 I have been surprised at the religious commentary in public schools with regards to many issues including premarital sex, all of which seem to make the assumption that every child or parent in the room is Christian. (I attended Catholic schools and don't recall ever seeing a Christmas tree in a hallway. Yet, there are parents who believe their public schools ought to have Christmas trees.)

An example is last week's DeKalb teacher convocation. I have heard from several teachers, including some who identify as Christian, that there were too many religious references. I have attended several public hearings in Georgia on sex ed and have been astonished at what parents report their children being told about sex before marriage including it's a ticket to hell. 

Astropig
Astropig

@MaureenDowney @Astropig @altAJC2


I'm not religious at all and don't plan to be,but you seem to have a bias against your own faith. These people that you mention,are they actors of the state? Do their decisions carry the force of law?Do they carry out religious rituals as official public acts or are they anecdotal yahoos that do these things and you notice them (which is their intent)?


If the above is the case,then why don't you seem to notice the nutjobs on the left side of the spectrum that believe that transgenderism,Pedophilia and other deviance are just a morally equivalent lifestyle choice? How do you miss them? Because they are simpatico? They want a seat at the teaching table on this subject also and given the (bad) choices here,I'm okay with abstinence as the lesser of several evils on offer.


historywriter
historywriter

@MaureenDowney @Astropig @altAJC2 There is a program that is available to schools called "OWL:  Our Whole Lives."  It is an age-appropriate, sex-education course for every age/grade level that has been recognized as one of the best programs in the country.  But it is rarely used in public school settings (mostly private schools and churches). OWL is a non-religious and honest look at sexuality in all human contexts, based upon the belief that humans can make healthy decisions with respect and maturity towards themselves and others.  

BK37
BK37

I hope I live to see the day this country finally comes into the 21st century regarding sex ed.

Astropig
Astropig

@BK37


Okay-Could you please be specific about this brave new world? What exactly would you have these students taught that they are not being taught today?

altAJC2
altAJC2

@BK37 

Give parents tuition vouchers and the right to choose their children's schools and the 21st century will arrive immediately.

BK37
BK37

@Astropig @BK37 For starters, we could start discussing sex as something that's a perfectly natural part of being human vs. an act that's nasty, dirty, etc.  Teaching kids abstinence is perfectly ok, but when that's all you teach, that's a huge mistake.  America has to take it's head out of it's butt and address this like rational people.

Astropig
Astropig

@BK37 @Astropig


That's certainly what we did at the AstroPigPen,and there were giggles,embarassed,awkward silences and questions.That's just natural.


But the thing that scares me is that societal boundaries seem to be different than when we parents of today were learning the basic of our sexual makeup.The ideas of right and wrong,good and bad are more determined by a persons politics than any sense of objective standards.i simply don't want to trust such an important subject to the state,whether it is controlled by right or left wingers.One-size (as we men all know),doesn't fit all.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

What a disappointment the last few threads have been to me.  I feel as if I have evolved over a 50 year period and many of those who patron this blog have not evolved.


Of course, sex education should not spread "shame and stigma."



redweather
redweather

@MaryElizabethSings  You strike me as a caricature of the enlightened educator. I suspect you are much too old and set in your ways to address that, but your message would be more effective and well received if it didn't always drip with condescension. You seem to think you've been to the mountain top, but maybe that was only a slight incline. Being a know-it-all doesn't mean you're all knowing.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@redweather @MaryElizabethSings


And, you strike me as being a professor of college freshmen at Perimeter College.  Please refrain from lecturing me.  I do not value the quality of your thinking, and have not for months.


I am not here to be "accepted."  I am here to state truth, as I see it.  That seems to be a problem for you, but not for me.

redweather
redweather

@MaryElizabethSings @redweather You will no doubt be delighted to learn that I have retired from teaching.


Unfortunately, your version of the truth always ends up placing you on a pedestal from which you look down on everyone else. You are too full of yourself to realize just how full of yourself you are. 

DawgNole
DawgNole

@redweather

BINGO!

And even more amazing is that you need read only a post or two from her to see that.

Astropig
Astropig

@redweather @MaryElizabethSings


@redweather


"You strike me as a caricature of the enlightened educator. I suspect you are much too old and set in your ways to address that, but your message would be more effective and well received if it didn't always drip with condescension. You seem to think you've been to the mountain top, but maybe that was only a slight incline. Being a know-it-all doesn't mean you're all knowing." (1)



(1) Ibid.

redweather
redweather

One former student discussed a lesson comparing virginity to a flower in which students were told “no one wants a flower who has no petals.” She told The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “…I cannot express the amount of damage this did to me…”


So is this assault with a damaging metaphor?

altAJC2
altAJC2

Tuition vouchers and parental choice provide the best solution to this and most other disagreements over curriculum.