Utah students are incredibly lucky to have “choice” in their sex education. They can choose to observe what healthy sexual relationships look like through recent cinematic greats, such as “Superbad” and “American Pie,” or they can choose to learn from an unrealistic abstinence-only curriculum that currently contains several problematic holes. Unfortunately, nowhere in the public realm do young Utahns have a reasonable, middle-ground option to learn about sexual health.
I am in my senior year at a private high school in Utah and, for me, this time seems to be filled with many bittersweet “lasts” and the potential for many exciting “firsts.” Fear of the unknown is a common theme for many of my peers, especially in the area of sex and relationship education. In Utah public schools, abstinence-only is the only approved curriculum for sex education. Crucial information about STDs, pregnancy prevention, teen dating violence, meaningful consent, body image or healthy relationships is currently not included in the state-supported curriculum. Thus students are left to their own devices to educate themselves on such topics with very little guidance as to what is credible and what is not.
“I honestly didn’t know anything about birth control [until] I was 16 and went to my OB-GYN,” noted a recent graduate of East High School. In her freshman year of high school, she watched her classmate walk out of school with a pregnancy confirmation. “She said she didn’t want her mom to know she was having sex, so she didn’t get on anything … I can honestly tell you, nothing was taught in high school.”
This recurring theme of unpreparedness is common for many public high school students in the state. “I feel like I wouldn’t know enough if I was just relying on school to get information,” a current West High senior confessed. She says that although she feels personally prepared for college, it’s more as a result of the fact that she’s “done [her] own research on different things” rather than relying solely on what her health classes have taught her.
In contrast, I attended a private school where I was given the opportunity to learn about sex and healthy relationships. Weeks of Health I and Health II are devoted solely to learning about a multitude of contraceptive methods and the ways in which teens can seek assistance and guidance from crucial organizations such as Planned Parenthood. I feel confident that the content is completely objective and devoid of any political or religious opinion, a common fear among those who favor an abstinence-only curriculum.
While Utah’s teen pregnancy rate has declined significantly since the 1990s, consistent with declines at the national level, the percent of teens with STDs, specifically gonorrhea, has skyrocketed since 2011. Meanwhile, the sex education curriculum in Utah is becoming increasingly limited, placing even more emphasis on the benefits of abstinence before marriage and omitting important information on contraceptives and birth control.
As I prepare to leave high school, I feel fortunate to have received an accurate and unbiased health education, but teens across the state deserve the same experience. Young adults deserve more than the hyper-sexualized media portrayals of high school and college students or a curriculum that leaves my peers afraid to seek help when they desperately need it. Let’s give students a third-way: the opportunity for meaningful health education that prepares them to confidently navigate their personal world.
Ava Pecora is a high school senior at Rowland Hall and interns with Alliance for a Better Utah.
See Ava’s OpEd in the Salt Lake Tribune here.