Sex ed: We’re doing it wrong

The community is polarized about what kids need to know about sex

Rev. Karen Foster is the administrator of the sex ed program at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada.

Rev. Karen Foster is the administrator of the sex ed program at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada.

photo/Kris Vagner

Taylor Tremayne is 21. She graduated from Spanish Springs High School in 2014 and is now a month away from earning a psychology degree from the University of Nevada, Reno. Like most local public school students, she participated in Sexual Health and Responsibility Education (SHARE), Washoe County schools’ sex ed program. SHARE curriculum updates proposed earlier this year were shut down by fierce opposition.

Once Tremayne started college, she realized there were some things she wished she’d learned more about in high school.

“I wish I’d learned how to communicate with my partners about sex, and likes and dislikes—and even just how to bring up the conversation,” she said. “I also wished I’d learned about STDs, and how to also bring up that conversation as well.”

If Tremayne were placed in charge of designing the SHARE program, she knows what she would include—more about safe sex, more about pregnancy.

“I would probably steer away from abstinence-based,” she added. “That’s where a lot of high schoolers lose interest.”

At UNR, Tremayne has noticed some efforts to promote safe sex. Members of the French club put condoms in a goodie bag as part of a fundraiser, for example, and there’s an annual Take Back the Night event, in which survivors of sexual assault share their stories publicly. But she hasn’t found a comprehensive resource for students who want to know more about STDs, pregnancy, communicating with partners or similar topics.

“I’m not sure of a website or anything else off the top of my head,” she said, adding that she did eventually garner the information she needed through her peers and through experience. “I think learning with your partners is good. But I wish I’d had more guidance from adults when I was younger.”

What we don’t know

Alison Gaulden is an adviser at UNR, a public relations professor in the journalism school, and a former lobbyist and communications rep for Planned Parenthood. She knows a lot about what young people don’t know about sex, and she’s clear on the consequences of not knowing it.

College students, she said, tend to be “woefully underprepared” when it comes to sexual health. Like Tremayne, the first thing Gaulden brought up was communication.

“It’s always about no,” she said. “But when you’re ready to say yes, we don’t have information about when you’re ready for yes. How do you say it? How do you ask?”

“Young men don’t know how to ask,” Gaulden said. “Neither [young men nor women] know how to set boundaries. To ask at each point of the process of having a sexual relationship, ’What’s OK? What’s not OK? How far can I go?’”

So, how many have decided they’re ready for yes? According to a 2015 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41 percent of American high schoolers reported having had sex—which marks a decrease in recent decades. In 2003, it was 46.7 percent. The numbers for college students are more elusive. Estimates range from 43 percent to 60 percent, though there does appear to be a consensus among researchers that college-age students are also having less sex than in recent decades. Meanwhile, STD rates have risen. The CDCs found in 2016 that gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis were at an all-time high, and that teens and young adults accounted for a large number of cases.

Gaulden pointed out that some adults are opposed to informing young people about sex-related topics, including STDs, because they believe such discussions encourage promiscuity.

“That’s not the case,” she said. “In fact, studies have shown that students who are well informed are less likely to be promiscuous when they have all the information. Students who are given options about contraception and relationships do a better job waiting and avoiding teen pregnancy.”

When it comes to high school sex ed in general, Gaulden said, “We have an unhealthy approach to it. We treat it like it’s a crime, then we give them no tools to be responsible. There are some programs that the university and other groups are trying to add, but it should start earlier.”

“There’s really not a lot of information out there for the LGBTQ community, or the asexual students,” she added. “It’s usually people of the conservative religious base who are opposing this.”

Unlike minds

A conservative base is indeed opposing LGBTQ education—and a long list of other sex ed topics—and that community enthusiastically opposed the SHARE curriculum updates proposed earlier this year.

“The curriculum has seen virtually no changes from 2003 until last year,” explained Brooke Maylath, president of the Transgender Allies Group, who had helped draft the transgender and gender-nonconforming-inclusive policy—separate from the SHARE program—that the district adopted in 2015. (The 2003 curriculum, available online, does have a few scratch marks and write-ins that acknowledge LGBTQ students. “When and how one becomes aware of the opposite sex,” was changed to “when and how one becomes sexually attracted to another person,” for example.)

A lot of Maylath’s problem with the 2003 curriculum is what it leaves out. Among her critiques: the consequences of not teaching communication skills.

“We’re teaching young girls that no means no, and we’re teaching young boys, ’Boys will be boys. No means yes. She really wants it. Just keep on trying,’” Maylath said. “And we wonder why date rape happens? And the heartache, and the pain, and the unwanted pregnancies, and they STI transmissions that are happening because of lack of education, we are failing our students. We’ve been failing them for decades. … There’s not a student I have talked to up at the university—in five years—that hasn’t complained about how the curriculum did not get into the practical, real-world matters that all the sudden they were turned loose on in their freshman year. One young woman was telling me two weeks ago she had finished her freshman year before she had a true concept about what willing consent actually means.”

“We have an opportunity to be able to change that,” she continued. “Or, we did. We were on course to do that, until a professional agitator mobilized a congregation to be able to show up and start to essentially insult and badger and accuse, on both personal levels and professional levels, members of the SHARE committee.”

Beginning in 2015, the SHARE committee—made up of five parents, a school counselor, a teacher, a nurse and a clergy member—began drafting the updates.

“What was done by the school district was to remove some of the most outdated materials,” said Maylath. “The SHARE committee worked diligently to be able to develop a medically accurate, up-to-date, evidence-based curriculum—that was LBGT inclusive.”

The proposed curriculum addresses age-old topics—a straightforward video explains menstruation—and introduces issues that have come up since 2003. A brief video featuring interviews with teens is titled “Perspectives on Chatting Safely Online.” Another video is a dramatization—correlating with modern teen attention spans at 1:06 minutes—examining how a social-media photo can accidentally make its way into the hands of sexual predators.

Abstinence is mentioned, but not as a sole solution. A seventh-grade lesson on gendered language aims to be inclusive of transgender students. One lesson plan explains exactly how to say “no,” using, as an example, a conversation about setting up a movie date—“We can if you want” is not as effective as “No, I don’t want to.”

Community standards

Here are two excerpts from the philosophy statement of the existing SHARE program: “The intention of the Sex Education Advisory Committee was to develop a sex education program consistent with community standards.” … “We must give young people the facts, but we must remember it is their sense of right and wrong, their internal moral compass, that determines their actions.”

Determining what the community considers to be right and wrong and which way moral compasses point has turned out to be a complex endeavor. As for “facts”—there’s some passionate disagreement about those, too.

The school district made the new proposal public and held several public-comment meetings in February and March.

On Feb. 23, the Nevada Family Alliance put out an action alert headlined “New Sexuality Training in Washoe Schools,” encouraging people to speak out against the proposed changes.

The Nevada Family Alliance website says that the group promotes “religious freedom” and “parental rights.” Its director, Karen England was once co-chair of a coalition trying to repeal a California law protecting transgender students, and she has publicly opposed LGBT people in the military and the Boy Scouts. England is also executive director of Sacramento-based Capitol Resource Institute, which says it exists “to educate and strengthen families.” The Southern Poverty Law Center lists it as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.

In a March 8 public-comment meeting at Academy of Arts, Career and Technology, several commenters spoke against accommodating LGBTQ students’ sex education needs.

Some spoke with a sound of heightened emotion, some in measured tones. Supporters and detractors of the proposal both garnered applause—the detractors tended to elicit louder cheers. The moderator admonished the crowd for booing a speaker and asked one commenter, “Please refrain from making attacks on the board.”

Those supporting the curriculum updates—who were in the minority at this meeting—tended to speak about the dangers of being under-informed. A UNR student said she’d been assaulted at age 9 and didn’t know where to turn, “because that’s not something that was discussed in my elementary school.” A father of two said that the more educated children are, the more likely they are they avoid STDs and pregnancy.

Robert Harding, who works with Northern Nevada HOPES, took the mic and said, “The education we provide in our SHARE program is not adequate” and pointed out Washoe County’s high syphilis rate.

YeVonne Allen, equity inclusion director at Truckee Meadows Community College, said, “I’m the one that, once your kids hit college, I’m realizing the education they don’t have. They don’t know about consent. … They don’t know about transgender individuals, because maybe it wasn’t even taught.”

Allen concluded, “We’re here as educators. Leave religion out of it.”

Of those who opposed the curriculum, most mentioned their faith. Several objected to language and concepts in the proposal that they found age-inappropriate, fourth graders learning what a wet dream is, for example. One parent objected to “pagan influences.” Another said, “You can’t ignore science,” and strongly implied that science does not acknowledge the existence of transgender people.

Dr. Joe Taylor, pastor of the South Reno Baptist Church said, “We have basically said that anything goes, and that all things are right without negative consequences. It’s one-sided, immoral, grossly skewed.”

Pastor Joe Canary of Spirit Filled Church in Sparks said, “As a pastor of a church, and the 500 people I represent, I feel like I’m being bullied because I think that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

Some commenters expressed an allegiance to the Old Testament, linking its messages to their discomfort with homosexuality. “You can’t just throw out 6,000 years of normal,” said one parent.

Several expressed anger over what they called attacks on their freedom to teach their children as they see fit. Some called the proposed program “indoctrination.” Some said the school district was trying to overstep its bounds.

One parent said, “Everything you have done needs to be thrown out and go back to the drawing board.”

That’s exactly what happened.

An alternative model

In August, the school board decided not to adopt the changes. The 2003 curriculum remains in place, and the question remains open of how to design a sex-ed curriculum for the entire community.

“We’re kind of in a situation that people are so dug into their perspective,” said Reverend Karen Foster, director of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada. “I wonder if somehow a one-size-fits-all answer is not the answer.”

Foster is one person who’s comfortable talking about religion and sex—including LGBTQ sex—in the same sentence. Her church teaches a sex ed program for kids and teens that addresses, among other topics, anatomy, body image, consent, relationships, communication, domestic violence, pregnancy prevention and decision-making. It’s called Our Whole Lives—OWL for short. And that curriculum recently went through an update process, too. It now mentions how specific drugs relate to issues of consent.

“The program was developed in the ’90s as a collaboration between the Unitarian Universalists Association and the United Church of Christ denomination,” said Foster. “Those are two very progressive, liberal denominations, that really believe our kids need something beyond abstinence getting pushed down their throats.”

“We believe that sexuality is a great gift,” she said. “It’s a fully integrated part of who we are.” The OWL program, she said, assumes that developing a healthy approach to sexuality is more beneficial than “to pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Foster said the program results in a community with few domestic violence incidents or unwanted pregnancies.

One comment she said she’s heard often from former participants, is, “I felt like I understood how to talk to partners.” For that success, she credits the detailed information that students receive in OWL, as well as its design. Adult facilitators need about 230 hours of training, kids say the program is fun, and building trust between participants and teachers is a priority.

“Sexuality is a beautiful part of who we are,” Foster said. “It’s integrated into our natures. It’s something to be acknowledged as a gift, rather than something that’s evil or something that we shouldn’t participate in. … What the kids need is information, honest information, and to be respected enough to be given the tools to make decisions. There’s really something to be said for helping kids navigate a situation before they encounter that situation. [Without accurate information], there’s a much higher chance you’re going to get caught blindsided.”