Penis! Vagina! Sex! Oh my! The dominant discourse about sexual health education in the U.S. is often boiled down to giggly conversations, embarrassing anatomy lessons and condom-sheathed bananas. But at Health Connected, we understand the importance of treating sexual education like a living, breathing, ever-evolving creature in need of constant updates. This summer, I worked alongside two student interns– a high school senior and a university fourth year– inspiring me to reflect on the current state of sexual education in California.
I have been a health educator at Health Connected across four academic years, carrying out puberty and sexual health courses with 5th through 12th graders in dozens of California schools. During the “off-season,” when most schools close for summer vacation, our team dives into intensive curriculum development sessions, striving to keep pace with current events. This year, we were grateful to have the perspective of Halle and Natalie, our brilliant and capable interns, to energize us during those long summer work days, and I realized that the three of us together represent a kind of time-lapse.
All three of us are young people who grew up on the Peninsula– the region south of San Francisco– and we all attended high schools in the same school district. The nearly 10-year age span between us represents an era of tremendous growth and change in the Bay Area, as well as in the world of sexual education. The California Healthy Youth Act (California Education Code Sections 51930-51939, effective January 2016) requires CA schools to fulfill the most comprehensive sexuality education standards in the U.S. This legislative change reflects the collective advocacy of parents, schools and communities who want their kids to grow up informed and confident. Through my collaboration with Halle and Natalie, I noted a few important themes that run through our sex ed experiences:
1. Gender-Segregation Encourages Secrecy
Let me take you back to 2002, into my fifth grade puberty class. I remember when the teacher asked all the boys to stand up and go next door. The girls then watched a video about a girl who plays soccer, gets her period, cries while hugging a box of tampons, then chats with her aunt. Once the film was over, my teacher simply said, “Any questions?” I wanted to say, “YES!! Where do I begin?!” I wanted to know why this happens, what are the boys watching, do boys get this so-called period too, and so much more. I was unsure how to ask since no one else was raising their hand in the tense and impersonal environment. This cannonball approach left questions zooming in my head.
Natalie, who attended fifth grade in 2008, describes the atmosphere in these gender-segregated classes perfectly, “I was puzzled by the division and assumed that the information given to each group was a secret that needed to be kept from the opposite sex. An accumulation of moments like these taught me to that sex was taboo and reinforced a binary narrative.”
Even Halle, the youngest of the three of us, experienced gender-segregated puberty ed– although her classes promoted open, ongoing dialogue with adults. She recalls the weekly “Circles,” facilitated by her teachers, in which students discussed a variety of health topics and teachers answered students’ anonymous questions. She says, “Looking back, I see the importance of these ‘Circles.’ My peers and I became more comfortable having conversations about our health.” This model echoes a key principle of Health Connected’s Puberty Talk; we feel that students who communicate consistently with adults and with one another will build empathy.
2. Gender Expectations Hurt Everyone
The sort-by-gender format I experienced during that 2002 puberty class left no room for students who do not conform to the girl-boy binary. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had one classmate who was transgender. They waited until high school to “come out” to their classmates, but I wonder how the period video made them feel, having to hear about changes their body will experience while internally struggling with their identity.
Natalie, too, watched her friends struggle under gender expectations and explains her experience this way: “The gender binary, the concept that sex and gender are restricted to just two forms– masculine or feminine– can be really oppressive. This system ostracizes people who exist outside of the masculine and feminine stereotypes. Comprehensive sex education could have exposed me and my friends to a spectrum of gender narratives, protecting us from feeling ‘wrong’ or inadequate when we didn’t meet those expectations.”
As health educators, we witness students’ anxiety about gender norms first-hand in our anonymous question box. “Is it okay if you have a smaller than average penis?” “What if you like girls, but everyone thinks you like boys?” Gender expectations not only hurt underrepresented populations, like non-binary and queer students, but they establish unrealistic norms for everyone.
3. Sex Ed is About So Much More Than Sex
Of all of our sex ed experiences, Halle’s was by far the most comprehensive. She had the benefit of a 20-year partnership between Health Connected and her school district, which informed our constant iteration of sexual health instruction in her school based on student, parent, and teacher feedback. Halle had this to say about her experience with Teen Talk High School course during her freshman year in 2016, shortly after the California Healthy Youth Act went into effect: “Teen Talk helped me realize how empowering sexual education can be. It’s not just about knowing which birth control to use or how to prevent STIs; it’s also about understanding your body, respecting others, and cultivating healthy relationships.”
I remember my own freshman year, back in 2006, wanting so badly to talk about these topics, but feeling like my only options were to whisper questions to friends or look up words in an encyclopedia… yes, some of us had very limited internet access way back in the early 2000’s.
Health Connected is dedicated to our mission to equip young people with the information, skills, and support needed to make thoughtful choices about their relationships and sexual health throughout their lives. Sexual health encompasses so much more than just bodily changes and actions with others. As part of Generation Z, Halle, Natalie, and I are proud to count ourselves amongst the change-makers who advocate for more inclusive, more relevant sex ed for the next generation of young people.