At 16 I found myself taking that shaming walk to the school principal’s office, a place I had never been before. I was always a good student, and never talked back to my teachers or other students. The reason for this trip was a mystery to me. However, when it was my turn to face the beast within, I found that my summons was due to an article I had written for the school paper. This article was about sex education. I had written an article similar to the one here. However, because it contained the word “condom,” it was not allowed to print.
Here in Utah, sex may seem like a taboo topic to many teens. Questions can be left unanswered by teachers and parents which can lead teens and young adults to seek other sources to answer those questions. The Fog Zone, polling data conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, states, “22% of the unmarried young adults [between the ages of 18-29] surveyed reported they never had sex education in school and of those who had, more than one-quarter had it before they were 15 years old.” Information about sex can be seen by a click of a button through online resources. Whether the information is correct is another question.
Misinformation about a topic so important is harmful when the consequences are life changing. Educating teens about safe practices and the consequences of ignoring them should be a higher priority than it currently is.
In Utah’s Sexuality Education Law and Policy, teachers are not allowed to teach about “the intricacies of intercourse … the advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods or devices or the advocacy of sexual activity outside of marriage.” However, for every 1,000 Utah births, 23.1 occur to teen-agers, ranking Utah #10 in the nation.
Abstinence is an effective tool. However, it’s no secret that teens and young adults are having sex. To some people, teaching them safe practices is seen as encouraging them to have sex. This does not have to be the case. Education is meant to make teens aware. Having proper education can inform their decision.
According to Annabel Sheinberg, Director of Education at Planned Parenthood of Utah, 50% of high school students have had sex. By age 19, that number grows to 70%. Many of these teens are not getting the proper education about sex. The Fog Zone shows that 30% of unmarried young adults age 18 to 29 say they know little or nothing about condoms, 63% say they know little or nothing about birth control pills, and 56% say they have not heard of the birth control implant. These statistics also don’t cover other methods that many teens and young adults also try and may also have little knowledge of such as the rhythm method, in which a woman tracks her mentrual history to predict ovulation (a form of natural family planning which involves diligence and careful record keeping, as well as self-control or a backup barrier method).
Many teens and young adults don’t know at what time during the month a woman is most fertile, or commonly available information such as side effects of birth control pills and the proper way to use condoms. “They underestimate the effectiveness and overestimate the risk of many methods. Many are afraid that serious side effects from some of the most effective methods are highly likely, which in turn reduces the chance of their using them,” stated authors of The Fog Zone.z
Making teens and young adults afraid of using contraceptive methods does not mean they will quit having sex. For this reason education about safe practices is necessary.
Sheinberg talks about sex education as a positive part of life. “I would like to see comprehensive sex education,” she says. A comprehensive education includes teaching abstinence as the best method for avoiding STDs and unintended pregnancy; however, it includes facts about condoms and contraception to reduce the risk of pregnancy, STDs, infection and HIV. It can also teach interpersonal and communication skills that can help teens and young adults explore their own values, goals and options.
Educators and parents should be willing to talk to teens and young adults about sex and relationships. Sheinberg urges parents to share their thoughts and values with their children, and let them know they care. It’s important when teaching about sex to correctly portray what can go wrong and what can be dangerous. Parents should be willing to listen to their children to find out what questions they may have and how to appropriately answer them. These can be steps to improving education in homes and schools.
Simply having “the sex talk” with your child may not be enough. Sheinberg says, “It’s not one big talk. There are many learning opportunities that can come up.” Leaving it with just one talk can leave questions unanswered and it can be difficult for teens to approach parents when it’s not talked about often. Something as simple as a scene in a movie can become a teaching moment. With today’s society becoming more and more sexualized, teaching moments can pop up every day. These moments don’t have to be awkward or uncomfortable. Talking about sex with confidence and factual knowledge can help ease the awkwardness. It can also help with the “myth” problem that continues to occur. There is no better source for teens and young adults to hear the truths about sex than from the people they trust most. Their parents.
Planned Parenthood has a three-step plan to help parents educate their children. These steps are: Talk health, Think social, and Stay involved. Essentially it urges parents to first talk about sex and healthy relationships. Second, think about how their child sees it. Think about the “everyone’s doing it” mentality and how you can put it to an end. Finally, be involved in their child’s life. Know what their child is up to and set rules and boundaries.
Planned Parenthood also has a number of resources to help answer questions anyone may have. These include lectures at nearby colleges, live chat and text programs, and walk-in appointments at their nine health centers. Information about sex should not be swept under the rug. Teens and young adults need information to not only keep them safe but also to help guide their decision making.
Jeannette Culas was a CATALYST intern this past summer. She is a sophomore at the University of Utah.
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