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Comprehending Comprehensive Sexual Education

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"Encourage students to stay like a new toothbrush, wrapped up and unused. People want to marry a virgin, just like they want a virgin toothbrush or stick of gum." This is not a quote from the Victorian era, or from a dystopian novel, or even from a nightmare I had last Tuesday. This is a direct quote from the instructions given to sex education teachers in Texas' Canyon Independent School District. From middle school on, students are taught that remaining a virgin until marriage is obligatory, and going even further, that having sex before marriage makes you as disposable and revolting as a chewed up piece of gum.

Similarly, in Oxford, Miss., schools are instructing students to unwrap chocolates, pass them around the class and watch how dirty they become. This, teachers say, symbolizes a girl who has had sex; she is now used and unclean. This rhetoric of uncleanliness and loss of value in connection with sex is being used at public schools across the country.

Julie Askew of Hofstra University also explores this rather antiquated, demeaning notion in a study published in the Sex Education journal. In her study, female students at a university located in the Bible Belt described their sex education as "overwhelmingly negative" and "summarized as: abstinence until marriage, guilt and fear, double standards, suppression of desire, reliance on male partners, and lack of information."

After these female students were taught a comprehensive sex education course from a feminist perspective, however, they felt "empowered" and "at ease and informed about a topic." Another student said that she was "beginning to form a healthier view of relationships."

Sexual education curricula greatly vary among states. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures' official website, 33 states require that students receive instruction about HIV/AIDS; 19 require the information, if provided, to be medically, factually, or technically accurate; and only 22 states and the District of Columbia require that public schools teach sex education. There is a large discrepancy in the information being received by students across this country, with a minority of states receiving comprehensive sex education that includes information about contraceptives, STDs and abstinence.

In spite of its sex education efforts, the United States has higher teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates than any other developed nation, according to Stranger-Hall and Hall's study on abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates. This study's investigation of the correlation between abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates led to the conclusion that "abstinence-only education does not reduce and likely increases teen pregnancy rates." The problem stems from the disheartening sexual education standards in the country. European countries, whose sexual education emphasizes responsible behavior and openness in regard to sex, have significantly lower teen pregnancy rates.

In the United States, federally funded abstinence-only education cannot include information about contraceptives or safe sex. In 2006 and 2007, the government invested $176 million a year on such programs. That number was reduced by two thirds by the Obama administration and Congress in 2010, and $190 million was allocated for comprehensive sex education, according to the 2010 Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States report. However, there are still many states receiving funds for abstinence-only education, and a Congressional committee report recently found that these abstinence-only curricula often include "major errors and distortions of public health information."

The information taught in sexual education classes is also insufficiently regulated. The California education code states that school districts may provide comprehensive sex education, but the information must be "medically accurate, factual, and objective." In spite of this statute, some California public schools utilize a textbook entitled "Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children" by Joe McIlhaney and Freda Bush. This textbook contains blatantly inaccurate information. For example, the book states that pheromones are "unconsciously detectable to the female nose (but not the male nose)." Many studies, such as McCoy and Pitino's study published in the Physiology and Behavior Journal, have shown that pheromones are unconsciously detectable by both sexes. The book's information about the hormone oxytocin is also largely tenuous, claiming, "the severing of the [oxytocin] bond explains the incredibly painful emotions people often feel when they break up." Such statements have not been proven by peer-reviewed research, yet they appear throughout the text.

The textbook also contains hugely subjective and rather sexist statements on the nature of sex. It claims that "a woman who is being approached sexually by a man is very vulnerable" and that lust is "a counterfeit emotion designed to manipulate the other into having sex, with no romantic or love interest at all." The textbook essentially demonizes sexual activity that exists outside marriage, and attempts to use faulty science to back it up. "Hooked" treats marriage as a permanent relationship and remains completely oblivious to modern-day divorce rates and the variable quality of marital sexual relations. Its use in public schools clearly violates the California educational code, yet it has not been removed from many curricula.

When it comes to actual teen pregnancy and sexual activity rates, the statistics are bleak. According to a 2011 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 percent of high school students report having sex, while only 60 percent of those reported condom use and 23 percent reported birth control use during their last sexual encounter. Further, three in 10 girls will become pregnant at least once before her twentieth birthday, and the teen childbearing costs are a $9.4 billion annual burden on the taxpayers. To top it all off, teens and adults aged 15 to 24 are a quarter of the sexually active public, but they are responsible for half of all sexually transmitted infections.

It is abundantly clear that abstinence-only programs do not reduce teen pregnancy rates and often include faulty information. Furthermore, public opinion is not in favor of abstinence-only education. According to Stranger-Hall and Hall's study, 82 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 83 support comprehensive sexual education programs that stress abstinence as well as STD and pregnancy prevention through contraception. Abstinence-only programs received 36 percent of support and 50 percent opposition.

There are many more statistics to cite and facts to dwell on. However, the message is clear: the United States public demands the amelioration and perhaps an overhaul of the sexual education system. More importantly, students deserve to receive accurate and objective information. Otherwise, sex education upholds current and creates new double standards and facilitates mass misinformation. Teens will inevitably find out about sex, whether from the Internet, their best friend or their health teacher. They are, however, much more likely to receive correct information -- and then implement it -- from a qualified health teacher using a comprehensive curriculum than from the forums of a shady website.

The topic of religious freedom is an inevitable part of the sexual education conversation. Many parents find contraception to be against their beliefs, which is of course a free exercise of their rights. However, denying this information to students who don't share the same beliefs is effectively violating those students' freedoms to religion and information. The American Civil Liberties Union states on its website that "some abstinence-only-until-marriage programs violate this core [religious] freedom by using public dollars to convey overt religious messages or to impose religious viewpoints."

The exceedingly simple solution to this is parent involvement in their child's sexual education, which is an option that already exists and is widely utilized. According to the NCSL website, 37 states and the District of Columbia require school districts to allow parental involvement in sex education programs, and 35 states and D.C. allow parents to opt-out on behalf of their children. Providing comprehensive sexual education but allowing parents to opt-out on their child's behalf ensures that all students are given the opportunity to receive accurate information but also protects their parents' and their own religious freedom.

It is inevitable that people's views on sex will be varied. Even if all students in the United States took the same comprehensive sexual education class, they would still come out with different ideas about the meaning and value of sex. This is inevitable exactly because sex is a very personal and individual issue; it is difficult to teach it objectively because opinions on the topic differ so greatly and are so deeply ingrained. The purpose of sexual education is to receive the scientific facts about sex, not the subjective stances of the instructor. Teens can make prudent, informed choices about sex only if they have been adequately informed.

The sexual education curricula in this country require serious consideration and reform. Sex education is the first step to lowering our abysmal teen pregnancy rate, STD rate and the ensuing taxpayer burden from teen pregnancies. State legislatures and Congress should examine their current policies. I sincerely hope that no child will have to be ashamed of their sexual desires and that women don't learn to attach their self-worth to their virginity. I hope that the policies that endorse this philosophy are the first to go.