Sex Education: A Response to America’s Courts

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Blackboard with Sex Education Keeps Our Kids Safe written on it in multiple colored chalk. An emoji of a face with male and female signs for the eyes is after the word "safe."

Debbie says:

Just a few days before the Alabama Supreme Court released its blockbuster ruling on in vitro fertilization (IVF), claiming that frozen embryos have full human rights, Minna Most published “Let’s Talk About Sex in School” on the Women’s Media Center F-Bomb platform, which is written by and for teens.

Most does not mention the Supreme Court case, which may have been at the top of their mind, but they do lead off with IVF, and having grown up knowing that they were an IVF baby. The first paragraph of Most’s essay is a window into the complexities — and potential rewards — of IVF families:

I have half siblings across the country, from New York to Arizona, that I’ve developed relationships with since I was 18 months old, and my mom loves to talk about my sib family, especially how the mothers became their own unique type of family, sharing assisted reproductive technologies with each other. For example, my mom and one of my sib’s moms gave their extra vials of sperm to the mother of one of our siblings who wanted to have a second child with the same donor. One of my sib’s moms donated her extra eggs to another when she couldn’t conceive again naturally, so two of my half-sibs are full siblings but live in different families.

While I know there are people who find this confusing — or worse, repulsive — I find it joyous and affirming. I love the idea of this young person related to people all over the country, whom they know, whom they respond to as family.

Most goes on to describe shock and grief when Roe v. Wade was overturned, and recognized quickly how this would impact their lives and the lives of their fellow students. Being a person after my own heart, they turned their fears into finding a response:

I also realized that because abortion rights were being chipped away, it was even more crucial for young people to learn about sex and contraception so they could avoid unwanted pregnancies. I began to reflect on the terrible school sex education my peers and I received. Sex education was commonly called a “study period” because nothing useful was taught, so no one paid attention.

I grew up with a unique view of reproduction because of my family structure, and this usually taboo topic was destigmatized at home, allowing my mom and I to have open conversations about sex. I know that’s something many of my peers couldn’t do with their parents, and if kids couldn’t learn this critical information from their parents, they would be dependent on crappy sex education in school.

And turned their initial response idea into research:

I discovered there are two types of sex education: one is comprehensive sex education, endorsed by institutions like The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics. According to UNESCO, comprehensive sex education is the “process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality” which includes anatomy, menstruation, contraception, pregnancy, STIs, reproduction and gender-based violence, nondiscrimination, human rights, consent, bodily integrity, gender equality, sexual abuse, and healthy relationships. Not a single state, even those with “comprehensive sex education laws,” includes all these elements.

The other is abstinence-based sex education, which teaches that abstinence is the only acceptable, safe, and effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy and STIs. Ashley M. Fox of Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy found that “The millions of dollars spent [annually by the federal government] on abstinence-only education has had no effect on adolescent birthrates.” One of my most shocking findings was that 32 states don’t require sex education to be medically accurate.

The article goes on to discuss the specific laws and regulations on sex education in Most’s home state of Colorado, and also Most’s more localized research into their own classmates.

I was exhilarated and horrified by the responses.  … I received 112 urgent responses, including impassioned calls to “TEACH SAFE SEX!” and “Do better.” People crafted thoughtful responses in the survey and thanked me for attempting to address this problem we all knew and were worried about.

Some survey responses were truly heartbreaking: “I had a pregnancy scare at some point, and it was horrifying not knowing the next steps to take with my partner.” “I taught myself most of it through experience.” “My middle school health class used entirely fear-based learning to scare us away from drugs, alcohol, mental health issues, and sex. That class is a large part of the reason I’m in therapy today.”

Like any good activist, Most then moved from fact-finding into public action:

I used the survey data to make a PowerPoint presentation and prepare a speech for my school district Board of Education. Contemplating the reality of speaking about sex to esteemed members of the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education had my hands trembling. Focusing on the support I had received from peers, their calls for comprehensive sex education, and the heart-wrenching stories of how the district had failed them, I walked up to the podium. I presented the most concerning data I’d gathered, including that 79% of students said their sex education did not prepare them for what to do if they thought they were pregnant, and 62% of students said their sex education did not prepare them to resist pressure for sex. I recommended taking a more extensive survey of students to get a better understanding of where the curriculum was failing and fix it. I concluded by asking to be involved in any actions taken to improve sex education.

As a result of the presentation, I was invited to co-facilitate the Boulder Valley Safe Schools Coalition (BVSSC). BVSSC started in the second semester of my senior year, and we attempted to rewrite my district’s middle school sex education curriculum …. Unfortunately, BVSSC didn’t end up completing the new curriculum for reasons that were never disclosed to me. The lack of tangible change was extremely frustrating ….

Even in the face of frustration and what must feel like failure (in part because it certainly is failure for the students of Boulder Valley), Most closes with a call to further action from all of us.

A small number of people can make a massive difference in these elections. As the next presidential election nears, the welfare of young people and reproductive rights are at stake. One place readers, especially parents, can start is to take five minutes to learn about sex education in your state, research local candidates and ask their positions on the issue, speak at Board of Education meetings, and most importantly, vote. Vote like reproductive rights are as fundamental to your family as they are to mine.

I feel sure that the Alabama decision was not a surprise to Most, and I hope they are heartened by the way responses to the decision have brought IVF in particular, and the consequences of living in a post-Roe world in general, into a much wider and more public conversation. Personally, I’m grateful to them for making the direct connection between abortion rights (and IVF as it has been folded into those rights by the right wing) and school sex education. I’ll be educating myself about California’s laws, and I hope you will do the same in your state.


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