The Birds and the Bees in the Beehive State

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Sex education is certainly a topic no one really loves talking about. The “birds and the bees” conversation with your parents is so incredibly awkward that you hope the topic never comes up again. Talking with your parents about sex is something almost no one wants to do, but that doesn’t mean that the conversation should never take place. It just means the conversation must come from somewhere else. For most people, that means sex education in school. Some people have their first sex ed. day in middle school, but others don’t receive any sex education until high school. Yes, sex is something that needs to be taught.

However, in Utah, the laws don’t exactly allow for a full education about sex, and all that comes with it. Sex ed. is a part of the Health Education Core Curriculum (HECC) which means there are rules about what can be taught. HECC says that sexual education “usually occupies four to six hours of instruction.” The choices young adults make regarding sex could affect them for the rest of their lives, and four to six hours doesn’t seem like enough time to teach students that. But what are the students being taught in those four to six hours?

Well, first the students and their families have to opt-in. Utah is one of only three states that requires a signed permission slip a minimum of two weeks before instruction for the student to receive sex ed. The permission slip has a course outline so the parents can see what their child will be learning about, therefore giving them a chance to decide if they want their child to participate. HECC also underscores that “parents should be the primary source of human sexuality instruction and values relating to the subject.” Thinking back to the incredibly awkward first “birds and bees” conversation, it is hard to picture a proper sex ed. lesson taking place at home. Utah is encouraging sex ed. to be taught at home, but what about those that do opt-in?

On the Frequently Asked Questions page of HECC, the first question asks “is human sexuality instruction the same in every Utah school district?” To which the answer is no. Utah law allows districts and school boards to decide for themselves, but with a catch. “Board policies may include less than what the law allows but never more.” So, there is a base level of sex education set by the state, but school districts can decide to include even less information. This means that kids in two different school districts could receive very different levels of sex education.

On that same page, HECC addresses abstinence-only teaching. While Utah is not an abstinence-only state, it is an abstinence-based state. This means that teachers are required to promote a firm abstinence message, but can teach about contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases per their school district rules. However, there are four school districts- Canyons, Jordan, Nebo and Provo- that require abstinence-only teaching. In those school districts teaching anything other than abstinence would be breaking school board policy. The students in those districts receive no education about sex and the lasting effects it can have.

With all these laws, permission slips and school district policies, what are the students really learning in sex ed? HECC provides a list of topics covered, but it is easier to find out what the students are not learning. A new law was passed in 2016 regarding, among other things, sex ed. law in Utah. Title 53A Chapter 13 Part 1 Section 101 is a lot of political writing, but right in the middle of the page is a very important few bullet points:

(iii)

The state board rule made under Subsection (1)(c)(ii)(B) shall include, at a minimum:

(A)

that the materials adopted by a local school board under Subsection (1)(c)(ii)(B) shall be based upon recommendations of the school district’s Curriculum Materials Review Committee that comply with state law and state board rules emphasizing abstinence before marriage and fidelity after marriage, and prohibiting instruction in:

(I) the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation, or erotic behavior;

(II) the advocacy of homosexuality;

(III) the advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods or devices; or

(IV) the advocacy of sexual activity outside of marriage;

What that boils down to is that teachers discussing sex ed., cannot discuss the “intricacies of intercourse,” meaning that kids do not learn how sex works. They are taught about the reproductive systems for both genders, but not the act of engaging in intercourse. Teachers are also not allowed to advocate homosexuality, contraceptives, or pre-marital sex. That also means that consent is never covered. All four of the bullet points that detail what a teacher cannot say are topics that absolutely need to be talked about. Not teaching students all the proper information about sex can greatly affect how they behave in sexual situations.

Sending students out into the world without knowing how birth control works is concerning, but it is worse that heavy-handed abstinence-based classes often leave out what proper consent looks like. The Washington Post discussed a survey done at UCLA and the results are troubling:

“What if someone undresses? Or gets a condom? Or nods in agreement?”

In each of those scenarios, a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found, at least 40 percent of current and recent college students said the action established consent for more sexual activity. And at least 40 percent said it did not.

The fact that such a large percentage of students are unclear about what consent looks like is a huge problem. Consent needs to be laid out in clear terms. Consent must come from both parties because otherwise, someone is committing a crime. Understanding consent is especially relevant when the number of sexual assaults on college campuses is rising.

As uncomfortable as talking about sex may be, it is vital that the conversation takes place. It is concerning and baffling how little Utah students are being taught about sex. It is time for Utah to understand that sex is a big deal, and it deserves to be talked about in its entirety.

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

 

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