Rethinking our approach to sex education

October 22, 2017

Last month, Acacia Burnham wrote about the thoughts of local teenagers involved in a peer-led sex education program (“More than just the birds and the bees,” Generation Next, Sept. 29).

This article discussed the importance of accurate information, which brings us to that age old question, “Where do babies come from?” This question could be answered honestly, using correct terminology. Some people may lie, telling a tall tale about a stork, and others just change the subject. These answers represent what is happening in our sexuality education curriculum in New Mexico.

We are well into the current school year, with teenagers taking advantage of many social school experiences such as crushes, dating, parties and homecoming. The question is, should we teach a comprehensive based, medically accurate sex education so our teens can make informed and educated decisions? Or, should we lie, or not discuss this topic at all?

I worked as a school nurse for five years and have heard many questions and comments from youth that helped me realized how much teenagers need accurate sex education. “I was told I couldn’t be pregnant the first time.” “Does Dr. Pepper prevent pregnancy?” “I was taught that condoms don’t work.” “I didn’t know how to use a condom.”

The teen birth rate in New Mexico is decreasing, but we still ranked fourth in the nation in 2014. New Mexico also ranks fourth in chlamydial infections, a sexually transmitted infection that if left untreated can make it difficult to become pregnant later in life.

Sex education is taught primarily to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, but these are not the only aspects of sexuality. A good comprehensive program can include information about body development, sexuality, contraception and relationships, including the benefits of abstinence.

New Mexico Public Education Department regulations require students must be taught about HIV and related issues in the health curriculum in every school district. The related issues leaves a broad perspective of what should be included, which is often left to the discretion of individual schools or teachers. How do we know if this information is accurate? One school nurse reports, “I sat in sex education classes where distorted and inaccurate health information was provided about condoms and birth control.” This leaves our teens without the tools to make informed decisions about sexual health if they choose to become sexually active.

Many people worry that if we provide sex education, it will encourage teenagers to become sexually active. Research shows evidence-based comprehensive sex education curriculum actually delays the initiation of sex and reduces the frequency of sex, number of new partners and the incidence of unprotected sex. It also increases the use of condoms and contraception among adolescents who choose to be sexually active. But evidence-based comprehensive sex education is not as common as it should be.

Analysis of federally funded abstinence-only curricula found false or misleading information about reproductive health in 80 percent of these programs. This included false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives and statements of stereotypes about boys and girls as scientific fact. Abstinence-only programs did not demonstrate effectiveness to delay the initiation of sexual activity.

We need to rethink our attitudes and approach to sex education and face reality. We must address these high numbers of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in our state by supporting comprehensive sex education across the state. The health and educational future of our teens depends on this very issue. Our children deserve to have the truth about sexual health.

We do not expect students to pass a math exam without accurate instruction on solving problems. Let’s not leave our young people without the knowledge to make educated and informed decisions about their sexual health.

Shauna Mangum is a registered nurse and lifelong resident of New Mexico. She is a student in The University of New Mexico Ph.D. in nursing program.