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Grow up, America: Kids need real sex education in schools — including proper condom use

Schools are failing to implement CDC guidelines and — shocker! — risky behavior is rising


Mary Elizabeth Williams
December 12, 2015 1:19AM (UTC)

America, we are bombing out on how we're educating our kids. And this isn't just about standardized testing or charter school messes. It's about sex ed.

According to a CDC report issued this week, "In most of the United States, fewer than half of high schools and only a fifth of middle schools teach all 16 topics recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as essential components of sexual health education." As the CDC explains, it "selects these age-appropriate topics for middle and high schools based on the scientific evidence for what helps young people avoid risk. The topics range from basic information on how HIV and other STDs are transmitted -- and how to prevent infection -- to critical communication and decision-making skills." Those are good things. And what's the price of ignorance? Guess what, it's not a nation of unsullied youth. It's a rise in risky behavior — the CDC says "Teens today are less likely than they were a decade ago to say they used a condom the last time they had sex (today about 59 percent say they did versus 63 percent in 2003). And nearly a quarter (22 percent) drank alcohol or used drugs the last time they had sex – reflecting no progress in more than two decades."

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Unshockingly, the choice of which 16 CDC recommended topics do get any coverage at all in school has a lot to do with whether or not they relate to actual sexual behavior. As NPR explains, the most widely taught topic is "Benefits of being sexually abstinent," followed by "How to create and sustain healthy and respectful relationships." Way down at the very bottom of the list? "How to correctly use a condom."

I wonder if that's why the Office of Adolescent Health notes that "Adolescents ages 15-24 account for nearly half of the 20 million new cases of STD's each year," and says that "Today, four in 10 sexually active teen girls have had an STD that can cause infertility and even death." Relatedly, as has been repeatedly pointed out over the past few years, states with no sex education or abstinence only curriculums have the highest rate of teen pregnancies, while "teenagers who received some type of comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less likely to get pregnant or get someone else pregnant."

I have two daughters, the elder of whom is a high school sophomore. This year, she and her classmates lobbied for the school to work on a student sexual harassment policy. Because they have a receptive school administration, the kids themselves began work on drafting it. They also get together to talk about relationships and gender and identity and no doubt a whole lot of things they save for when parents aren't around. And as long as that info is based in reality, I'm glad, because I want all of them to be be getting information that's accurate, inclusive and nonjudgmental.

We're fortunate to live in New York — one of only three states, along with New Jersey and New Hampshire — that teaches all 16 CDC recommended sex ed topics. And at my children's school last month, the students began a several weeks long course of sexual education workshops offered via Planned Parenthood. (My middle schooler, meanwhile, will begin sex ed later in the year.) So far, in the same class in which one boy admitted he didn't know what a vulva was, a girl immediately and accurately replied to the question, "What are some possible consequences of sexting?" with the tart reply that "If you're under 18, you can be charged with distributing or receiving child pornography." This is the world they live in. Isn't it better they know about it?

My kids — and yours, if you have or will have them — won't stay kids forever. We are failing them if we're not preparing early them to have healthy, respectful, responsible relationships. And it's delusional -- and dangerous -- to perpetuate the notion that keeping them ignorant will keep them innocent.

Why Are Teens Taking the #CondomChallenge?

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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