Confessions of a Sex Ed Advocate

Lisa Schulter

Activist, educator, and renowned "sex-ed girl" Shelby Knox shares her vision of a utopian sexuality education program.

Perhaps the fruits of abstinence-only education are starting to show. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released preliminary data on all U.S. births in 2006. For the first time since 1991, the rate of teen births increased – quite shocking, since we had been experiencing a steady decline for the past 14 years.

Stephanie Ventura, who leads the CDC's Reproductive Statistics Branch, said it is too soon to determine what caused the three percent increase, but its notable size definitely calls for further investigation. "This early warning should put people on alert to look at the programs that are being used to see what works," Ventura said.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2002, only 62% of sexually experienced female teens had received instruction about contraception before they first had sex, compared with 72% in 1995. Coincidence? I'm going to say probably not.

To me, comprehensive sex education seems like good old common sense. Studies have shown that many teens will have sexual intercourse before their 18th birthday. Instead of denying that they will ever be curious about sex or have sexual feelings (good lord!), why not make sure their experiences are as safe as possible?

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Activist, educator, and renowned "sex-ed girl" Shelby Knox can speak to the dangers of sex education that leaves out the sex. In 2002, her hometown of Lubbock, TX, had the highest teen birth rates in the nation, not to mention staggering numbers of STD cases. Knox's fight for comprehensive sex-ed at her high school was profiled in the 2005 documentary, The Education of Shelby Knox. Now 21, she has become a household name in the reproductive health world, and has worked with Advocates for Youth and the Sadie Nash Leadership Project.

"Abstinence-only programs employ scare tactics and disseminate misinformation in an attempt to impose moral imperatives on young people," said Knox. "I think the most distressing is that abstinence-only programs stress that teens are not responsible enough to make good decisions about sex. This is disrespectful to teens who are certainly smart enough, when given complete and accurate information, to choose either abstinence or safer sex methods."

Abstinence-only education is like that cliché of psychologists putting you in a room with a big red button you're not supposed to press. They never tell you why you're not allowed to touch it, just that you shouldn't. Maybe you're okay for the first hour or two, but then all you really want in life is to press that lousy red button. You just want to know how it feels. And the fact that you have absolutely no idea what it does makes it all the more marvelous.

Of course, sex is a lot more complicated than a big red button – also grounds for why we need more in our education than just "not until you're married." You don't have to be a parent to know that teens are naturally curious and are going to experiment as they learn about their world. That being said, why would anyone feel comfortable sending them out to discover their sexuality without knowledge of condoms, or other ways to protect themselves against STDs and unplanned pregnancy? Or that the safest sex of all – masturbation – is a perfectly normal, healthy way to explore one's own body and establish sexual identity.

"It's important that teens know that their sexuality is a large part of identity, one that they will have to navigate throughout their lives," Knox adds. "Telling them they know nothing about it as a teen isn't helpful."

Telling teens to wait until marriage is also rather insulting. It comes from a close-minded view of the world where everyone gets married and everyone is heterosexual. There are plenty of people out there who feel that marriage just isn't for them – so, should they remain sexually abstinent until death? And judging by how our country has not moved forward at all in terms of recognizing gay marriage, homosexuals should also resign themselves to a life lacking any sexual pleasure, right? At least that's what "wait until marriage" seems to suggest.

So, now that we've covered what sex education should not be, what would a perfect curriculum look like? Knox sees a sex-ed utopia as an ongoing process. "A good comprehensive sex-ed curriculum would begin in kindergarten with age-appropriate information and expand each year to include more topics, such as puberty, abstinence, relationships skills, contraception and safer sex methods," she says. Knox also points out that these types of courses should be conversational in style – not a lecture. "Sex and sexuality define people, young people included, and their opinions and ideas on the subject should be accepted and discussed without judgment." She sees peer-led sex education as a less-intimidating approach, where fellow students lead the discussion, under the guidance of an experienced educator.

A sexuality education curriculum needs to encompass more than just birth control, condoms, STDs, and the act of sex — it needs to addresses the entire body and mind (seems rather stupid to separate sex from where it takes place, right?). This would include issues such as body image, teaching girls and boys not to feel inadequate in the shadow of the American Standard of Beauty and Brawn. And sex education needs to focus on relationships. Past studies have shown teen pregnancy to be strongly linked to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). Educating teens about their bodies and how to care for them will naturally foster self-esteem. I strongly believe if teens feel empowered, educated and have self-respect, this would decrease the number of young people caught in abusive situations. These types of relationships can be incredibly harmful not only to a girl's mental health, but also her reproductive health.

With these new teen pregnancy statistics, perhaps we are on the verge of a sex-ed revolution. Abstinence-only programs are finally being seen for what they are – ineffective and useless. Let's hope that our youth can look forward to a well-rounded education that not only covers reading, writing and 'rithmetic, but also reproductive health.

Remember sex-ed in high school? The young people from around the country who’ve submitted their videos to our Fresh Focus: Sex Ed Digital Video Contest do! And they have a lot to say on the subject! From artistically breath-taking to just plain hilarious, these videos tell the individual and collective stories of young people about the sexuality education they’ve had, the sex-ed they wish they’d had or the way they envision sex-ed for the future!

Starting today, each day we’ll feature one or two of the top ten video in a blogpost on our site. All you need to do is VOTE for your top THREE favorites!!

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