Let’s talk about sex education
Exploring the evolution of sex ed and ourselves
The only time she talked about sex with her parents was when it came flying through her mother’s bedroom window.
On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, an anonymous senior opened all the windows of her apartment. But she lived in an apartment complex of tightly packed houses and plenty of neighbors, and debris floated in and out. An empty contraceptive packet landed on the frame of her mother’s white windowsill.
Her mother stormed into the senior’s bedroom, waking her daughter from an afternoon nap to demand an explanation.
“What is this?” Her first question. She held up the empty packet labeled “contraceptive pill”. The senior remembers this first, steely question clearly, its hard implication not lost on her. The senior, who hadn’t yet put her glasses on, didn’t know what she was seeing or what to say.
A barrage of questions followed.
I found this in my bedroom. Why do you have it? Why did you use this? What were you doing at home? Where did you go?
Within the next two days, she was at the doctor with her parents to check the intactness of her hymen. Only after the medical reports confirmed her story did her mother ease her anger. She still grounded the senior.
But despite all the questions, the one her mother never once asked was the simplest: “Did you have sex?”
“We don’t use that word,” the senior said simply.
This was her freshman year in Hyderabad, India — 8,500 miles and three years away from present-day California. Her sex education was, in a word, lacking. She recalls a clearly uncomfortable teacher going over a curriculum on puberty, but entirely skipping the sexuality portion of the unit. The teacher simply pointed to a sign of the male reproductive system, a sign of the female reproductive system, and then told the students to just read their textbooks before awkwardly asking, “Are there any questions?”
“No, obviously,” the senior said.
When she came to MVHS her junior year, she was shocked by the progressiveness and openness of the sex ed program. Our curriculum is far more modern than the abstinence-only syllabus at other schools in the world, the country and even the state. But this year, it will still undergo a mini-revamp along with all other Californian public schools.
Previously, sex ed in California was optional: apart from HIV prevention education, sexuality education was voluntary and curriculum taught was highly dependent on the preferences of individual school districts and even single schools, leading to a significant discrepancy in sex ed instruction throughout the state.
The new legislation, which came into effect Jan. 1 of this year, includes topics like abortion, consent and gender identity. Known as Assembly Bill No. 329, the new law not only makes sex ed a mandatory part of California school curriculum in grades seven to twelve, but also moves California sex ed in the direction of comprehensive sexuality education. This places a greater focus on human relationships, decision making, communication, sexual orientations and other, broader topics of sexuality.
Under the new law, students may only opt out of the curriculum as per individual parent requests. Where the previous law operated on an opt-in policy — teachers could send a letter home asking for parents’ permission for their children to participate in the school’s sex ed program — the new law’s opt-out policy requires that each parent contact the school should they want their child to opt out. According to Biology teacher Lora Lerner, this difference is crucial: sex ed is now the path of least resistance.
“If you’re into progressive sex education, it’s kind of a wish list,” said Lerner, who has been teaching sex ed for 13 years. “It’s pretty much everything you can think of that you want to positively teach people about sexual relationships.”
Positive hasn’t always been a word associated with sex ed. When Spanish teacher and Gender Sexuality Alliance advisor Joyce Fortune was in school, the key word was “don’t”. Sex was taught alongside drugs and alcohol in one scare tactic filled unit.
Don’t do drugs.
Don’t have sex.
“It was just all about ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’” Fortune said. “We thought it was kind of a joke. We didn’t talk at all about the emotional side or the interpersonal side of relationships. And they didn’t talk to us at all about a gender or sex preference. There was zero.”
Fortune’s fear-based sex ed experiences still ring true. Lerner notes that her freshmen have not had positive sex ed experiences in middle school, and that attitude surprises her more than a lack of knowledge about sexuality and anatomy. Students turn in papers with sentences written like “I’m not going to have sex. It’s just bad and dangerous.”
For Kennedy Middle School teacher Khadija Iyer, alignment with the district’s curriculum outweighs the negativity students may walk away with.
“We teach the curriculum that the district gives us, and abstinence is what the district wishes for us,” she said. “So if that comes across as negative, then I’m not gonna teach anything else because I’m going to stick with what the district is asking me to teach.”
Iyer has been teaching sex ed for 22 years, all at KMS, and the curriculum hasn’t changed much over time. There’s little room for her to make her own judgements about what to teach, but she mostly agrees with the curriculum.
Lerner acknowledges that freshman year of high school might not be the most appropriate year to teach students about sex, because some aspects of the sex ed curriculum — such as relationship communication — may be harder for freshmen students to relate to and a level of immaturity may result on the part of the students. Such aspects of sex ed, Lerner says, become much more relevant during the latter half of high school, after more students have entered into relationships or grown in maturity. But because freshman Biology is the last science class at MVHS that all freshmen students must take, it is also the last chance to educate students on sexuality together.
“Personally, I was never informed that [9th grade] was the last year,” sophomore Min Hoo Lee said. “Maybe I would have taken it more seriously if I knew that.”
The inadequate sex ed program at the senior’s school in Hyderabad is certainly not confined to India. Of all the educational curriculum mandated in the United States, sex ed is possibly one of the least standardized. A national standard doesn’t even exist — the sex ed curriculum, or lack of it, is largely up to local administrators or state legislatures.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to providing reliable information regarding sexual activity, sex ed does not even have to be offered in the schools of 27 states. Only 13 states mandate that sex ed instruction in schools be medically accurate, which, according to California’s AB 329, means “verified or supported by research.” And in fact, in the states Alabama, South Carolina, Texas and Utah, when sex ed is provided, it must include negative information on sexual orientation. This means that the LGBTQ+ community either does not exist in the sex ed curriculum of these states or exists solely as the object of negative scrutiny.
The senior explained that in her old community, the LGBTQ+ perspective is also nonexistent — at least in conversation. Her years of sex ed instruction at school never once mentioned any sexual orientations beyond the binary one.
In contrast, AB 329 even directly states that schools must “affirmatively recognize” different sexual orientations. At MVHS, a school with a growing LGBTQ+ community, some students feel that the current curriculum has some room for improvement. From a survey of 83 MVHS students, 45 percent believe that the sex ed curriculum at MVHS is not inclusive toward the LGBTQ+ community.
GSA secretary junior Ethan Yao cited a lack of coverage for less common orientations such as asexuality, and an emphasis on the binary. However, Yao, along with other GSA officers, acknowledges that teachers are trying their best to be inclusive, and that change won’t happen immediately.
“Pronouns take a while,” Yao said, referencing how long it can take to remember a student’s preferred pronoun at first.
To counter unintentional exclusivity of non-binary students, Lerner says that the freshman Biology teachers have been working as a group to design a more inclusive curriculum in recent years. One of Lerner’s goals for the sex ed curriculum in her own classroom is to normalize the idea of different sexual orientations. For this reason, she first touches on these topics earlier in the year, discussing sexual orientation and gender expression during the genetics unit. She later expands on these subjects and their cultural and political implications during the sex ed program in May.
“Normal is variation,” Lerner said. “[It] is important for us to not just talk about this stuff during sex ed, like it’s this weird little box we can only talk about for two weeks.”
And we don’t talk about it for only two weeks. We think and talk about gender our entire lives, whether we’re checking boxes on forms or dressing up little kids in designated colors.
“My daughter’s four. She’s already talking about marrying her little friends,” Fortune said. “We start learning about gender at like, two.”
The anonymous senior and her friend senior Aishwarya Natarajan sit on the edges of their seats, eagerly contributing to a class discussion in their Law course at MVHS on Jan. 4. The conversation revolves around the implementation of the new law that makes comprehensive sex ed mandatory throughout California public schools.
For the anonymous senior, the issue of progressive sexuality education is a personal one. Two years after her eighth grade teacher in India simply skipped the sexuality portion of her school’s sex ed unit, she was lucky enough to encounter an open-minded teacher in her sophomore year of high school. This teacher taught according to the comprehensive sex ed model and included how the students could protect themselves — a privilege not everyone has, and one the anonymous senior highly appreciates.
A few weeks after the anonymous senior’s and Natarajan’s discussion in Law, the conversation is still fresh. Opinions bounce across the gray, plastic slab of table separating the two girls.
“There are thousands, millions of people out there who don’t have such a privilege and they don’t know what they’re doing,” the anonymous senior says. “It’s like trial and error.”
“Trial and error? That’s a terrible analogy!” Natarajan says.
“That’s a reality, Aishwarya,” the anonymous senior says, shaking her head.
By chance, one of the anonymous senior’s friends in India happened to be a former MVHS student. The friend told her about the Biology homework assignment in which students head to a drugstore and compare condom prices.
“Did people not stare at you? That was my first question,” the anonymous senior said. “It’s such a big taboo, right. I was so fascinated...How did you tell your mom that you’re going to buy condoms?”
But despite the progressive assignment, students like Natarajan still feel the stigma in our community.
“Even though people have lived here for a while, it’s there,” she said. “It’s embedded in the culture. If you ask how many people had that open and honest conversation with their parents, I can bet you that it won’t be a lot.”
And at MVHS, it isn’t. In a survey of 87 students, 69 percent have never talked to their parents about sex. The anonymous senior doesn’t see the shock value of someone being sexually active, especially if they’re being safe, but she knows that others do.
“Every parent’s biggest fear is that their neighbors will find out,” she said.
“Everything,” Fortune says, laughing. She rolls her eyes a little bit.
We are sitting in her Spanish classroom in A208, almost empty save for the handful of GSA officers grouped together on the opposite side of the room. Students’ projects of colorful construction paper are tacked to the wall beside us with plastic green and yellow thumbtacks. Fortune sits facing us. Occasionally a student or two will pass by the window above her head.
“What did you wish you had learned in sex ed?” we had said. There is only a slight pause before she answers.
Though the curriculum Fortune remembers revolved so prominently around scare tactics, the sex ed curriculum at MVHS has always been fairly progressive, and the new law won’t change much according to Lerner. However, for some schools in California, the new law will completely undermine past ways of teaching about sexuality, as it even spells out the approach to positive sex ed instruction. According to Lerner, many teachers in the state will not be comfortable or even knowledgeable enough to teach some of the subjects outlined in AB 329, and educators may need further instruction on how to redesign their sexuality education curriculums.
The FUHSD doesn’t play as large a role in determining the specific content of MVHS’ sex ed curriculum as do the school’s individual teachers, and Lerner says that she and the other freshman Biology teachers have been working together to keep the curriculum updated.
In recent years, the topics covered in MVHS’ sex ed curriculum have been expanded in both breadth and depth. Subjects like sexually transmitted infections, communication and contraception are not new additions to the curriculum, but the freshman Biology teachers have worked to discuss relationship education, gender identity and gender expression even more in the classroom. In the past school year, Lerner also began to teach students communication skills and protection around sexting and issues that have arisen due to advancements in technology.
And her guidance will likely have an impact: 73 percent of people from a survey of 77 MVHS students believe that sex ed experiences depend on one’s teacher. Although the new law attempts to diminish the disparity between sexuality education programs in different classrooms throughout the state, discrepancies in curriculums taught — even at the same school — may nevertheless subsist.
Students rarely opt out of the sex ed program. Lerner and Iyer each only have a maximum of a few kids per year who do not participate.
“Our feeling has always been that most parents are thrilled that we do it, because they don’t want to,” Lerner said. “So it’s usually the other way around, they’re like: Please. Take care of this.”
Natarajan believes that if that relationship with your parents doesn’t exist, the conversation has to begin somewhere.
“You need to have [the talk] with someone in your life,” Natarajan said. “Not from someone on television. Not from your best friend, but from someone who’s educated on the subject, who can give you all the facts you need, who’s constantly there to support you and give you the correct information.”
If parents are uncomfortable talking to children about sex, as they often are, school may be the last time, or the only time, students have a chance to learn and to ask questions.
“If it doesn’t start with school,” the anonymous senior said, “society cannot progress.”
Editor’s note: An abbreviated version of this story appeared in the February print issue of El Estoque. For the online version, one source’s name has been withheld for privacy reasons.