A couple of years ago, when my daughter was in seventh grade, I got a notice from her school that I could go and sit in on her first sex education class. I was surprised at how few parents actually showed up and far more of us were parents of girls than boys.
The film they showed was from the 1980s, complete with ginormous pads that are so outdated to look ridiculous to these kids, not to mention the clothes and the hairstyles. I was a teenager in the 1980s and I couldn’t take the film seriously. Not only that, the genders were separated and the girls watched the “girl” film and the boys watched the “boy” film. I thought to myself – they should be watching each other’s films. They must have at least as many questions about what’s happening to their opposite sex friends’ bodies as they do to their own – maybe even more!
The Healthy Youth Act, which was passed by the NC legislature in 2009, provides for comprehensive sexuality education in our public schools that focuses first on teaching abstinence but also provides for educating our youth about sexually-transmitted diseases, birth control, and sexual abuse. A comprehensive government report in 2007 demonstrated that abstinence-only programs has NO impact on reducing teen sexual activity.
Teen pregnancy rates in the state are an all time low of 3.5%. The teen pregnancy rate dropped last year by 11% and fewer unplanned pregnancies overall among our states teens also contributed to a 13% drop in the teen abortion rate last year as well. This data is consistent with nationwide drops in teen pregnancy, most of which researchers attribute to increasing use of birth control and a slight increase in the age at which young people start having sex.
Let’s be clear, teens are having sex. On average, teens in the US have sex for the first time at the age of 17. While it is true that they are waiting longer to have sex than they did in the recent past, the reality is that young people are not waiting for marriage to have sex. Most of these kids are still in high school. According to the Center for Disease Control, roughly 85% of women and 90% of men have had sex before they get married and most of them while still in their teens.
Abstinence-only programs that avoid teaching students how to think ethically about their sexuality and their intimate relationships are part of the public health crisis in America that contributes to a 50% unplanned pregnancy rate and one-quarter of sexually active girls contracting STDs such as chlamydia or human papillomavirus (HPV).
Conservative North Carolina legislators are attempting to erode the Healthy Youth Act with a new bill H596, which will prevent educators from teaching students about legal, FDA-approved forms of emergency contraception. They are also attempting to water down the bill by changing the authoritative sources for the sex ed information from “experts in the field of sexual health education” to simply “experts.” This non-specific term potentially opens the door for ideologically motivated misinformation to enter the sex ed courses in our public schools.
Not only should these changes be immediately shut down by legislators, the Healthy Youth Act should be revised to eliminate the dominant focus on an abstinence-only approach to sexuality education.
As a Christian ethicist, I believe that human sexuality is a sacred gift to be shared with a long-term partner in the context of a committed relationship. Thinking about how to teach children, teens and young adults about the sacred value of our sexuality is a far more challenging and important ethical responsibility than simply telling them to “wait” until marriage. The data shows they aren’t waiting. Teaching them respect for their bodies and their sexuality and teaching them how to make good decisions about when and with whom to share the most precious gift of sexual intimacy is a far more responsible and evidence-based approach to sexuality education.
Pretending our young people aren’t sexually active. Wishing that they weren’t sexually active. Judging them for being sexually active. None of these are good public policy approaches to the very real fact that teens in North Carolina are sexually active. Sex education that focuses on “waiting for marriage” does not protect our young people or shape a healthy society. On the contrary, it puts them at risk – for pregnancy, for STDs, for poor choices about their sexual activity.
Attempting to prohibit educators from informing young people about the safe, legal option of emergency contraception is a politically motivated attack on women’s healthcare and the health of NC’s teen girls. It must be stopped.
As the parent of two young girls in the North Carolina public school system and as a minister and an educator – I believe that values need to be taught in the home and I do. At the same time, as a citizen and a mother – I also believe that public health problems like unintended pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases are public health crises that need to be addressed in our public schools.
If we are going to reform sexuality education in North Carolina, let’s do it in response to the data.