Roundup: What Are Teens Really Learning In Sex Education Classes?

Beth Saunders

What teens are - and are not - learning about in sex education classes, plus what we should all learn about pornography.

The Centers for Disease Control released a new study on sexuality education yesterday, conducted by face-to-face interviews with nearly 2,700 teenagers. The study reveals that 97% of teens report having some sort of formal sex education, but only two-thirds report learning about birth control methods. Which raises the question, is it sex ed if you aren’t learning about contraception? From Salon:

Except, only two-thirds have actually been schooled in birth control methods. Which is to say: Ignore the headlines about the total triumph of sex education, because the one-third of teens being left in the dark about contraceptives are not getting true sex education.

And how does the Washington Times report the story? With the headline: “Teens report high exposure to sex education.” As if it’s a contagion, not the facts of life.

But The Washington Post highlights one of the most interesting parts of the study:

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The analysis also found some notable differences between girls and boys. Boys and girls are about equally as likely to have been taught about sexually transmitted diseases and how to prevent getting the AIDS virus. Female teenagers, however, are more likely than male teenagers to report first receiving instruction on birth control methods in high school — 47 percent versus 38 percent, the researchers found.

A significant proportion of both males and females also reported having talked to their parents about sex. More than two out of three male teens and four out of five female teens had talked to their parents about at least one of six sex education topics. But female teens were more likely than males to talk to their parents about “how to say no to sex”–nearly two-thirds of females had had that conversation–compared to about two out of five males. Males, meanwhile, were more likely than females to talk to their parents about how to use a condom– 38 percent versus 29 percent.

And after one survives high school sexuality education classes, it might be a good time for advanced sex ed – notably, education about pornography and highly sexual media:

The more we understand how to “decode” porn media, the better situated we are to know the difference. The more willing we are to teach age-appropriate media literacy to children and young adults, the better able they are to navigate the sexually mediated world we live in.

The answer is not to eradicate porn: “Just say no” just doesn’t work. This slogan did not erase drug addiction, it is ineffective in terms of sexual abstinence and it does not work for pornography, either. The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that abstinence-only education is a waste of time especially “when the media have become such an important source of information” about sexual activity. Since pornography is one aspect of media, it holds that promoting porn abstinence is also an unwise strategy.

Yet groups such as Stop Porn Culture would like to obliterate porn. With Reefer Madness-style hysteria, these total-ban arguments lack nuance and stomp on free will. The anti-porn pledge available for signing at the Stop Porn Culture Web site echoes virginity-until-marriage vows promoted by the Christian Right. Neither pledge works and both create a dangerous conundrum. “Just say no” does not provide skills for knowing how to make choices when we “just say yes” one time and discover that it feels good. This is the case whether inhaling that first hit of weed or taking a first look at an XXX-rated click-through.

Rather than fostering silence and further taboo, it is crucial to provide critical media literacy, increased access to sexual information, and greater conversation about gender, race, consent, and power.

Mini-Roundup: Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced legislation to require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop standards for collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Sep 15

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