Sex education: How much is too much?

Rosemary Roller

Students in Utah schools receive one semester of health education in middle school and one semester in high school; however, some Utahns say this isn’t enough and parents should be more involved in sex education curriculum.

The debate over abstinence-only or abstinence-plus sex education versus comprehensive sex education is a touchy topic nationally. Utah’s abstinence-based education plan has been seen by some educators and Utah State Board of Education members to have benefits, but they still say that students would benefit even more from some adjustments.

Currently, under Utah State Law 53A-13-101 and Utah State Board of Education rule R277-474, students are taught information regarding “sexual abstinence before marriage and fidelity after marriage,” communicable diseases including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV/AIDS, and parents must give consent before students receive any education regarding contraception and/or condoms. All information must be medically accurate.

Additionally, instructors may not teach about “the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation, or erotic behavior,” and they may not advocate homosexuality, sexual activity outside of a marriage, or encourage the use of contraceptives. However, teachers may respond to questions posed by students regarding information about sexuality in order to provide accurate information and correct misleading comments made by other students.

According to Kristine Page, a health teacher at Churchill Junior High in Granite School District, the health class curriculum for seventh and eighth grade students covers the benefits of abstinence, anatomy, STDs, the stages of pregnancy and the challenges of teen pregnancy, “physical, mental, social, and emotional changes” that students go through during life, as well as various other topics regarding their health.

Page says that the biggest benefit to abstinence-based sex education is that students gain an understanding that it’s OK to be abstinent. “Peer pressure can make it seem like abstinence is not acceptable.”

Before students are able to participate in these courses, they must have a parent consent form signed and turned in to their instructor. Parents also have the option to opt their student out of the sexual education course if they prefer their student did not receive this information in school.

In the article “Going Too Far? Sex, Sin and Social Policy,” Susan Rose says that there is no empirical data to support the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs. Additionally, she writes that data on comprehensive sex education has many benefits, including “[postponing] initiation of sexual intercourse” and reducing teenage pregnancy rates.

While there are strong opinions on both sides, parental inclusion is often seen as an important asset to sex education.

While the parental consent form lets parents know where they can get more information about the curriculum, Dixie Allen, a Utah State Board of Education member for District 12, says schools need to be upfront with the parents and let them know why their students are being educated and what they are going to learn.

Current sex education policies, she said, are “a little bit convoluted and not really clear.”

She says that the schools and the school boards need to do a better job of informing parents of what the curriculum is and allow them to give feedback; they have experienced many of the topics discussed and can give feedback that the educators may not have thought about.

Board member Linda Hansen from District 3 agrees that parents should be educated. Additionally, Hansen mentioned that the districts in Utah are diverse, and in her own district there are schools that are more liberal and some are more conservative. In her opinion, it’s better for local school boards to be able to make the choice to teach what they decide for their area.

Page says that, because each school has their own demographic, there should be a collaboration from parents, teachers, administration, community leaders, and state guidelines to decide what will be the most beneficial to the students in each particular school. While it would be nice for a one-size-fits-all approach to sex education policies, that is not beneficial for the wide array of demographics in the state.

Page suggests that schools should be allowed to offer an advanced health class to cover additional topics since only two semesters of health education are required over the course of junior and high school.

“There is not enough time to cover all the areas needed in health to the depth that they should be; that includes sexual health,” Page said, adding the advanced health class would “provide the opportunity for choice. I am of the opinion we learn better if we have choices.”
Additionally, she says that parents will have the most influence over their children, and age appropriate discussion on the topic can begin in their homes even before elementary school.

“I think teenagers deserve as much information as they can get,” said Hannah Montague, a current student at the University of Utah who attended high school in Canyons School District.
Montague said Utah schools should “prioritize a more in-depth approach to sex ed” and that her education made her have uncomfortable feelings about sex. She mostly got information on the topic from third-party sources such as the Internet and her family.

“Information isn’t a bad thing, and proper tools can just help teenagers encounter sex safely,” said Montague. “I think [my peers and I] were educated because we had our families and the Internet to answer random questions we might have had, which lead to smart decisions.”

While these sources can be beneficial, information from other sources may or may not be reliable, according to Page.

Based on her experience, Montague says that sex education in Utah should be more thorough regarding sex in general, but especially on the topics of STDs and healthy relationships. She defines educating teenagers on how to treat each other in a sexual environment as “wildly important” and advocates for teenagers to be taught how to realize when unhealthy relationships are growing.

More information on Utah’s Administrative Code Rule R277-424 regarding sex education policies can be found at http://www.rules.utah.gov/publicat/code/r277/r277-474.htm.