I want to have The Talk. You know, the sex one. Birds and the Bees. The one we all had when we were young. Except this time it’s not going to be awkward and cringe-worthy. It’s going to be honest and open. When many of us think back to our own sexual health courses we remember condom coated bananas, anonymous anything-goes questions, and dreadful birth videos. Well, a lot of things have changed in the last several decades and with the rise of readily available technology and changing cultural norms, sexual education has also been forced to change. For many, it simply has not been providing enough for our young people. Although this article is about the young folk and their sexual education system, it applies to all – especially now with rising STI rates amongst those over 60. The message is loud and clear, sexual health is important, so listen up: have safe, emotionally supportive and vulnerable sex, and push the boundaries that make you want to stop reading.
Young people learn about sexual health and sex in school, but most of the actual consistent learning comes from other informal methods. Through friends, social media, parents, the Internet, or the roughly 7000 years worth of pornography that one porn site claims to have, young people are exploring sex and learning about it through ways that are often not authentic, let alone accurate. (Yes, there are actually 7000 years of porn on the Internet.)
Many of the ‘formal’ education courses aren’t as comprehensive as they could be and tend to withhold information. Withholding information does not prevent teenagers from having sexual relationships. A lack of comprehensive sexual health education has also been correlated with the epidemic of sexual violence that plagues the U.S. (and the world). By not receiving a well-rounded, all encompassing education, many people will leave high school without the tools necessary to protect themselves and others, often times resulting in an inability to navigate tricky social environments where sexual encounters are common and likely.
In Colorado, where many of us live, grow, love, and often breed, the most recent change happened last May when Governor Jared Polis signed HB 19-1032, commonly known as the Sexual Education Bill, into law. This bill updates an existing law from 2013 and makes some major changes to how sexual health is taught in Colorado. This recent bill moves to include more progressive topics that provide students with a comprehensive education, that is, if the district chooses to do so.
That’s right, Colorado does not require school districts to have any sort of sexual health course. It doesn’t even require schools to talk about HIV/AIDS. Colorado isn’t alone though. There are only 24 other states that actually require any sort of sexual health credit for graduation. Think about that. Only ten states mandate medical accuracy and only nine require that consent be discussed. If a district in Colorado does decide to teach sexual health, the new bill mandates what needs to be taught and how it must be taught.
Schools must now include:
• Consent as it relates to a safe and healthy relationship
• Safe haven laws
• Medically accurate information
• Preventative methods for unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS
• The link between human papillomavirus and cancer
Schools may not:
• Emphasize sexual abstinence as the best or only preventative method.
• Use explicit or implicit shame-based or stigmatizing language or instruction tools
• Employ gender stereotypes
• Exclude the health needs of the LGBTQ community
HB 19-1032 states that sex ed courses must also be ‘culturally sensitive’ to marginalized communities and to include those whose experiences have traditionally been left out of sexual health and education, programs, and policies.”
The bill is a solid step towards Colorado schools progressing to the point of students receiving a modern, more comprehensive sexual education. Still, it falls short in several ways.
Shortfalls of HB 19-1032
In the past, charter schools used waivers to bypass certain sexual education requirements. The bill prohibits the State Board of Education from waiving new requirements unless under certain circumstances, but it does not clearly prohibit schools from applying for a waiver. Charter schools must clarify their reasoning for requiring a waiver and the State Board of Education votes on it. The Liberty Commons School in Fort Collins has already received a waiver to the new bill. Liberty Commons teaches human reproduction in 5th grade science focusing on cell division. The course does not include human sexuality but they say that “students are exposed to relationships and situations described in Greek mythology, the anthropology of North American tribes, and those of many other world cultures past and present,” according to the request sent to the state. It goes on to say that “Liberty Common’s rigorous, academically focused curriculum affords no unallocated classroom time to accommodate this additional curriculum without threatening the robust instruction that presently, and historically forms the basis for the school’s Charter Contract.”
The bill had also initially included that schools must discuss ‘relationship models’ amongst the LGBTQ community. This was taken out of the final version after an upheaval amongst parents wrongly believing their children were going to be taught explicit sexual acts that occur in LGBTQ relationships, a misguided right wing talking point with no basis in fact that nonetheless riled conservatives.
Pregnancy prevention is mandated, but pregnancy outcomes are optional. If a district decides to teach about pregnancy outcomes, they must include all options such as abortion and adoption. Safe haven laws, which decriminalize leaving unharmed infants in designated safe zones, are required to be taught regardless.
Sexual health education has a complicated history in the U.S. States slowly became serious about sexual education starting in the 1960’s. When the federal government finally took on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 1980’s, sexual education became a big deal. By 1990’s states had mandates for HIV/AIDS. IN 1996, Title V was enacted which heavily pushed for abstinence-only programs. According to the report ‘Abstinence Education Programs: Definition, Funding, and impact on Teen Sexual Behavior’ from the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2017, one third of the federal funding for teen sexual health education was for abstinence education.
Sexual education is important. It has been widely proven to decrease sexual violence, teenage pregnancy, and STI transmission. People are inherently sexual and most will engage in sexual behaviors in their lifetime. It seems obvious to say, but our society stereotypically continues to use a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, which inherently perpetuates the belief that discussions about sex are awkward, private, and invasive. Instead of doing so, many experts believe that open, honest, and shame-free conversations need to occur to promote healthy living.
According to Teresa Wroe, the Senior Director of Education & Prevention & Deputy Title IX Coordinator at the University of Colorado Boulder and Janine D’Anniballe Ph.D, the Director at Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA), normalizing sexual discussion and treating sexual health as an integral part of anyone’s life is important. Wroe says, “we often treat these kinds of issues as ad hoc issues and not core to the development and education of young people.” That we see sexual health as an act and something personal rather than a component of everyday life.
Both also agree that educators must take on a stronger role in providing sexual education. Wroe says, “Often times people who are teaching [sexual] education in a school don’t have enough knowledge themselves to be doing it in a way that is really productive.” D’Anniballe shared a story of a teacher who, when introducing MESA to their class, said something along the lines of, “listen up because this is the only time you are going to hear anything about this issue related to consent while you’re in high school.”
Different external programs provide the ability for public schools to invite guest speakers for sexual health. MESA is one of these approved programs. According to D’Anniballe, “a very small amount of schools bring us in.” When asked why that is, she says it comes down to whomever the health teacher is and whether they believe it to be necessary.
For D’Anniballe, what’s needed is a “comprehensive sexual health education examining some of the problematic gender stereotypes, gender constructs, oppressive culture around gender dynamics, and power.” Learning about the basic bodily functions, prevention, STI’s, etc. is important, but there is so much more at play in regards to sexual health within our society. The shortcoming of sexual education is the lack of ‘progressive’ topics that need to be provided to students consistently throughout their development. Wroe says there simply needs to be more, that arriving on CU’s campus and receiving “one program or one hour or them seeking it out here [and] there without it having been embedded in their education throughout their development makes it particularly challenging.”
According to the 2016 CU-Boulder Survey, 71% of sexual assaults will occur in the very first semester of college, and even though colleges require incoming students to take part in sexual education programs when they first arrive, Wroe believes it can’t possibly be enough. She says, “students need more of this information well before college.” And that “when students first arrive on campus it is unmooring to be in such an intense new social environment, [where] everyone who is arriving is focused on meeting people, making friends, having a good time; [it] masks people’s abilities to recognize high-risk situations.” The problem, according to Wroe, is that the process doesn’t start early enough and isn’t extensive enough. She says that, “We [college campuses] are mid-stream in the educational and developmental process of young people and the onset of these behaviors tend to be in later high school and then early college.”
Expanding sexual education in middle school and high school and perhaps even earlier would allow students to have more time to develop the necessary tools for having healthy and safe relationships. The Blue Bench in Denver suggests educational programs should start as early as 3rd to 5th grade. It’s important to recognize that young people will engage in risky behavior and experiment with their sexuality and sexual behaviors.
According to the 2018 study, ‘Does sex education before college protect students from sexual assault in college?’, it isn’t the case:
• 5.5% of study participants had oral sex before age 15, 36.1% between ages 15-17
• 1.8% of study participants had vaginal sex before age 15, 28.1% between ages 15-17
By recognizing teenage trends and habits it becomes possible to educate effectively by creating an open and safe dialogue rather than ignoring it in hopes that it just won’t happen. Young people will inevitably learn and seek out information about sex and sexual health, and more often than not they seek it through informal methods, such as pornography and peers.
The average male will start watching pornography at 11 years old. Pornography is a performance, it’s readily available, and the amount that exists is close to infinite. (Pornhub claims to have 11 petabytes worth, or 6,976 years.) Pornography presents the viewer with what sex looks like and what it sounds like. It depicts what roles people play, provides gender stereotypes, depicts different fantasies and different pleasures.
Wroe continually emphasized the ability for people to examine information. She says, “kids are super curious about ‘what is sex? What would that feel like? What would I like?’. They’re seeking out information to figure [those things] out. — pornography gives them very explicit information about [sex].” Wroe continues that pornography can be “problematic” because young people may not be properly examining what they are consuming, doubting that young people are asking themselves, “Does this match with my fantasy [and] would this match with someone else’s fantasies and how would I figure that out?’” For most, porn use isn’t a problem.
According to the study, ‘Profiles of Cyberpornography Use and the Sexual Well-Being of Adults’, most people watch porn in a way that doesn’t interfere with their sex lives. However, porn can have dangerous consequences, such as affecting ones sexual drive and providing unrealistic expectations, such as insatiable female sex drives. Porn can certainly affect the way people live their lives but the common approach of illegalizing it or getting rid of it doesn’t seem to be as effective as would be teaching people how to have a healthy relationship with porn. The sheer amount on the internet alone would be difficult to get rid of and such arguments tend to stem from similar rationale as abstinence-only education agendas, both being ineffective.
What’s important and what it comes down to is how society is going to grapple with the fact that people watch porn. Will it choose to and continue to shame porn use or will it provide people the ability to examine their porn consumption through acceptance and dialogue.
In the U.S.A., the lowest legally acceptable age to watch porn is 18 years old, but according to D’Anniballe, “Porn is teaching our young people about sexual violence.” We can either “stay silent and let that teaching predominate or we [can] take a more active role.” She goes on to say that, “if kids are starting watching porn at 11, we need to start talking about sexual violence education at age 11 or even younger.” One has to consider the effects for someone who watches porn for years but never examines it in a formal educational setting. Laughing ironically, Wroe agrees that “the internet’s been educating our young people — peers and the internet.”
The new bill has been largely commended for including consent as a mandatory topic for sexual health courses. Consent as defined in the bill is “the affirmative, unambiguous, voluntary, continuous, knowing agreement between all participants in each physical act within the course of a sexual encounter or interpersonal relationship.” This moves the discussion from rape avoidance techniques and places the responsibility upon those who are most likely to commit sexual violence.
Consent promotes dialogue between people and promotes agency over their bodies. According to D’Annibale, consent also needs to start early. If a child is asked whether they can be picked up, it allows them the option to choose if they want someone to touch them. This provides the person with an understanding that ‘this is my body and I choose who gets to touch it’. In regards to sexual violence, this will eventually mature into an understanding between partners. Integrating consent moves sexual education from an understanding of possibilities and objective truths to changing group consciousness that helps society progress — the outcome being a potential decrease in sexual violence.
Sexual violence is an epidemic. Wroe says, “It’s a huge burden [and] challenge for society.” According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics sexual assault data from 2018, rates have fallen since the early 1990’s but have continued to be stagnant since 2002 ranging between 1-1.5 percent of the population. A big probelm around sexual assault has to do with reporting. Reporting and dealing with claims of sexual assault can lead to retribution, shame, and often isn’t dealt with properly or justly. The numbers, however, show that more reports are being made. In 2017, SafeHouse Progressive Alliance for Non-Violence in Boulder had 9,121 calls to its domestic violence hotline. MESA had 172 calls in September 2019. “MESA’s been around for 47 years and [in September] the number of calls exceeded our busiest month by 20 percent” says D’Anniballe
When asked why this is, both Wroe and D’Anniballe point towards recent movements and societal awareness. D’Anniballe says, “the #metoo movement has brought a huge amount of awareness to this issue.” People have become more empowered to report sexual violence, when in the past they often didn’t or couldn’t.
Sexual assault can happen to anyone, at any age, and anywhere. Here are the facts:
In the U.S.A:
• One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives
• In eight out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the perpetrator
• One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before 18
• 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police
• False reporting is low – between 2% and 10%
• 3rd highest sexual assault rate per 100,000 population among states
• Assault rate is 65.9 per 100,000, U.S. is 41.7 per 100,000
Boulder County Crime statistics:
• Thirty-nine reported incidents of rape in 2018 – seven arrests made
• One hundred and twenty-one reported incidents of sexual assault
According to CU-Boulder 2016 survey (13,009 students (41% reponse rate))
• 28% of undergraduate women experience sexual assault
• 6% of undergraduate men experience sexual assault
• 10% of graduate women
• 71% of sexual assaults occur during the Fall semester
• 67% of sexual assaults happened to first-years, 20% to second years.
• 92% did not make an official report to the university or to police
Sexual education, when properly taught, has been proven to decrease the risk of sexual violence. The 2018 NCBI study, ‘Does sexual education protect students from sexual assault in college?’, students who had less sexual education were more likely to experience sexual violence. Other factors were included, such as pornography, alcohol, and drug usage.
STIs amongst older populations
Interestingly enough, it’s not just young people who are being affected by a lack of sexual education. With the aging out of the Boomers, many people have come to an age where they may have lost a life partner and have decided to become sexually active again. Many of these folk were educated back when sexual education was nowhere near as informative and accurate as it is today. Although antibiotics and other methods of treatment have become commonplace, STIs have been soaring back. According to a study done by Aetna there has been a 23 percent increase for STIs in adults over the age of 60. Compared to the entire population, which saw an 11 percent increase, the rate for those over 60 is significantly higher. For many, sex amongst the elderly isn’t a common topic of discussion, but perhaps it should be. If anything, talking about issues that aren’t often addressed are the best ways for them to come into the main-stream. It’s the exact same problem that faces the youth of America. If we don’t talk about it, no one will know, and nothing will change. What’s more is that this should clearly show that sexual education isn’t something that should be limited to a certain age range. People of all ages have an obligation to continually educate themselves and seek out accurate information that aids in the betterment of their sexual selves.
Education is changing
Sexual education is changing because society is changing and its demands are changing. Colorado’s new Sexual Health Education Bill is a step in the right direction. Slowly our society is progressing to a place where sexuality and sexual experiences are treated with compassion, not shame and guilt; to a place where we understand that good, comprehensive sexual education not only keeps us and others safe, but teaches people how to have healthy relationships, how to respect others, and how to express oneself in ways too often left to the shadows of our private lives.