The text below is from an essay that I wrote to Dr. Sandra Smyser, PSD Superintendent
Dear Dr. Smyser:
Looking back at my childhood now, I realize how terrible it was that, even at the age of nine, I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to lead an unhappy life. I believed that I would spend the rest of my days as a girl, despite the fact that what I wanted more than anything was to be a boy. I blame this experience largely on the lack of information I received from the limited sex education provided by my school(s). This is not just a problem for students in the Poudre School District. In fact, the lack of comprehensive sex education is a national problem that harms all students, even those who are straight and cisgender. The American fear of all things sex that shares an uncomfortable existence with the equally American idea that “sex sells” has lead to a dangerous environment for today’s youth by creating a climate where children and teens are desensitized to sex while simultaneously being denied the information to proceed safely. Despite the fact that adults are afraid to educate youth for fear of coming off as encouraging, sexual education is key to the happiness and even survival of youth in today’s world.
As of March 1, 2016, only 24 states and the District of Columbia require sex education to be taught at all (National Conference of State Legislatures). This statistic is particularly startling when combined with the fact that a study lead by Pamela Kohler of the University of Washington in Seattle found that teens who received no sex education were 60% more likely to get pregnant or to get someone else pregnant. Additionally, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2014 showed that nearly 80% of teens between the ages of 15 and 17 had received no formal sex education before they first became sexually active. This opens students up to a world of danger. No sex education means that students don’t know the risks of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy. Equally important, they have not been taught what constitutes consent to sexual intimacy. Is keeping sex education out of schools really worth youth being confronted with sexual situations, and not knowing how to say no? Is it worth teenagers dropping out of high school due to pregnancies they didn’t know how to prevent? Is it worth gay teens being condemned to a life with HIV before they are even out of high school? One of the greatest HIV prevention challenges according to the CDC is inadequate sex education. The CDC has 16 critical topics that they recommend including in curriculums, but they say that fewer than half of the high schools in the majority of states teach all of them. Not to mention that HIV education has decreased from 64% of schools in 2000 to 41% in 2014 (“HIV Among Youth”). This study also states that sex education is not starting early enough, citing that “in no state did more than half of middle schools meet goals put forth by the CDC.” Adults across America, who do not see any need to change how sex education is currently taught, are great fans of citing the fact that teen pregnancy rates are at an all-time low, which is true. However, Victor Strasburger, adolescent medicine expert says “Everyone else’s teen pregnancy rate has gone down too. Before we pat ourselves on the back, we should acknowledge that we still have the highest rate in the Western World.”
Although the physiological effects on youth, such as pregnancy and disease, are devastating, they are also far more easily documented than the incredible emotional trauma that faces lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students. Often times for LGBT youth, school is the only place where they can learn about themselves. Thousands of questioning youth are denied any information, and often shunned, by unaccepting parents. This makes the life of a gay kid who doesn’t know that the way they feel is okay incredibly difficult. When schools don’t talk about lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) youth in their classrooms, when they fail to normalize it and offer resources, it contributes to the fact that the rate of suicide attempts among LGB youth are four times that of straight youth (The Trevor Project). A group denied even more information than LGB youth is transgender youth. As a transgender student, I have never been in a health or sex education class that has taught about being transgender. The absolute most the idea has ever been brought up as nothing more than a “T” in an acronym. This is horrifying because it deprives gender questioning youth of even knowing a word to research. These youth are thereby left feeling alone and unable to educate themselves. This contributes to the shockingly high rate of suicide attempts among transgender people. A study by the Williams Institute shows that the rate of suicide attempts among the transgender and gender non-conforming population to average out at 41%, this rate is higher for trans men, such as myself, at 46%. In addition to the appalling emotional trauma suffered by transgender students, there is also a great financial and physical cost from the lack of information given at a young age. This cost is that of surgeries and unalterable physical changes that occur through puberty. If transgender youth were even introduced to the idea of being transgender before puberty it would be possible for them to go on hormone blockers before their body starts changing in the wrong way. These hormone blockers make it so that trans men don’t have to undergo top surgery, a surgery in which breast tissue is removed and the chest is resculpted into a masculine form. This surgery alone can cost close to $25,000. As for trans women, the potential surgery requirements to simply appear in line with female appearance standards include laser hair removal of facial hair, shaving of the Adam’s apple, facial feminization, and breast augmentation. But not all effects of puberty can be undone through surgery. One of the greatest of these is height. The height that is determined by the hormones of each sex can make the social transition to another gender far more difficult. In brief, a small mention from teachers can go a long way in lessening the cost, whether financial, physical, or emotional, of trans people’s lives.
When it comes to sexual education as a class, there are also many improvements that need to be made. One of the biggest problems with sex education is that teachers act like students in the class don’t have experience with what they are discussing. This is, of course, very important when discussing rape or abuse. Talking about such things with even an air of nonchalance around victims can make an already difficult story to tell nearly impossible. This ostracizing way of discussing such personal and sensitive topics also can make students who are sexually active feel like they have nothing to learn. They feel like because they have had sex, and their teacher is speaking as though they haven’t, they must not belong in this class. This can cause them to miss out on valuable information. Another of the main problems with the way sex education is taught is the way teachers often take a clinical, or impersonal, approach. This makes it very difficult for students to engage in an already uncomfortable topic. Sex education is also skewed towards teaching about heterosexual intercourse above all else. This makes it so that pregnancy is covered more than STDs, even though STDs affect everybody, and pregnancy does not. And finally, perhaps the greatest problem is that all of sexual health, physical health, and emotional health education, at least at Poudre High School, is lumped into one quarter. This creates a scenario in which some of the most important and impactful topics of teenagers lives, are skimmed over. Students leave with more uncertainty than they entered with.
Many parents and teachers argue that by teaching students how to practice safe sex, students will be encouraged to become sexually active. Therefore, the practice of abstinence-only education has become very popular. But the reality is that abstinence-only education does little to stop teenagers from having sex, all it does is keep them from the life saving information that comes from comprehensive sex ed. We need to arm teenagers for the inevitable occurrences of their future, instead of endangering them for fear of informing them.
Another argument against sex education in schools is that parents should be teaching it, this is problematic in multiple ways. For one, if sex education in schools is so uncomfortable that teachers have cried (Oaklander), then imagine how much worse it is for parents and their children to discuss. Another reason that sex education cannot happen inside the home is that, in the semi-frequent case that a teenager is sexually active, they may fear reprimand from their parents. This makes it even harder to have a thoughtful and relevant discussion. And, of course, the parents themselves may not have had sex education and therefore don’t have the knowledge to give their children factual information. Not to mention, even if they did have sex education, information changes and grows so quickly that half of the things that parents learned may no longer be considered factual, birth control methods that they learned about may not exist anymore and better ones may have been developed. And all of this assumes that parents are even willing to go to the effort to teach their kids about such potentially uncomfortable topics. Aside from parents simply feeling awkward about a conversation, they may be flat out unwilling to teach their children about being LGBT. Parents such as these may go even farther to vilify and judge LGBT people making a questioning child feel frightened and rejected, often unbeknownst to the parents. This internalized rejection and homophobia can be devastating to the life of a gay teen.
And finally, an argument against inclusive sex education is that it “will make my child queer.” This belief comes from the fact that children may come home after learning about what it means to be LGBTQ and come out to their parents as gay. This, however, is not evidence of a child becoming gay, but purely an already gay child no longer feeling alone and afraid. Isn’t it horrible that parents would rather their child be terrified in the closet than learn that they can be safe and other people feel the same way? If schools start teaching inclusive sex education as soon as possible, thousands of gay students will be spared years of pain and confusion; thousands of straight students will be able to make it through high school without the interruption of a pregnancy.
From TIME Magazine to the CDC, hundreds of adults and students alike feel that something needs to be done about the failings of sexual education. And it’s not like students don’t have questions. Poudre High School teacher Monique Cassidy writes, “questions concerning sexual issues have crept up during a handful of discussions in my English classes.” This shows that students are curious, they want to learn. If they want to learn, they should be taught. And we must expand beyond educating about heterosexual sex to protect LGBTQ students as well. We must make sexual education both comprehensive and inclusive to all students. I want to make life easier, happier, and safer for other transgender youth in our country. I don’t want other kids to feel the sense of resignation to being alone in their feelings like I did. The only way that this can change is students can learn about themselves in sex education. I want the suicide attempt rate to drop from 46% (Haas, et al.). The United States needs to stop leading in teen pregnancy out of all western countries (Strasburger). You have the power to help with all of these things. I implore you to do your part. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my concerns and suggestions.”