Musings on The History of Sex Ed

Okay, so this is not a comprehensive history by any means. I don’t want to mislead you. I am a Health and Sexuality Educator at a non-profit youth-serving organization. I have recently been going through old files from previous Educators to see what to keep, and some of the lesson plans and collected research goes back to the late ’90s. One of the overarching themes that I’ve seen in older materials is HIV/AIDS education in odd places.

For example, there was a lesson on healthy communication, and at the end there was a section on AIDS prevention. In my healthy communication lesson I don’t usually mention any Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), including HIV, unless someone specifically asks a question about it. It’s just not all that relevant to the lesson. There was another lesson on how building a healthy relationship can lead to more honest communication and can prevent the spread of AIDS (specifically AIDS, not HIV) because it makes condom negotiation easier.

I understand the reasoning of these HIV additions . On of the main theories behind the education I do today is that building self-efficacy will lead to overall healthier young people and will reduce the spread of STIs like HIV because the youth will feel more empowered to make and stand behind healthier decisions.Research shows that if we teach youth the facts about things like condoms, birth control, and STIs including HIV they will be able to make more informed decisions. If we help them build their self esteem and critical thinking skills when it comes to media and peer pressure they will be able to make more logical decisions that they feel proud of. And all of this leads to the rise in age of first sexual experience, more widespread and consistent condom use, a reduction in the spread of STIs, fewer teenage pregnancies, and youth who accept themselves and others for who they are in all their complexities and diversity.

All good things.

So in most of my lessons today we are considering the whole youth learning experience and I do still teach targeted lessons on STI and HIV reduction, but don’t necessarily include STIs in every lesson I teach. But I’ve been thinking a lot about HIV and the history of the AIDS Epidemic. It’s Pride month, and I recently watched The Normal Heart on HBO. (If you ever have time to watch The Normal Heart and then ugly cry for at least a half an hour afterward I highly recommend it.) And I think about this every time I teach about HIV.

In the Eighties thousands of people – most notably gay men – were dying, and the government was ignoring it. AIDS research was not being funded. It was a natural disaster that received no relief efforts at all for many years. And it changed the entire way the U.S. and the world thought about sexuality and sex and the spread of diseases. Organizations like Act Up¬†were founded specifically to educate the government and the public at large about the truth behind the HIV virus, because they were refusing to educate themselves. And this history is found in current sex and sexuality education. In my job. And it’s something that I take very seriously and that I am working to educate myself on more thoroughly.

In the materials that I’ve been going through one article stood out to me as a really good example of how the AIDS Crisis truly shaped the way we teach our youth about sex and safety. The article is, Sex – The Words and The Music by Pamela Wilson, MSW. It was published in 1998 in “When Sex is the Subject, Attitudes and Answers for Young Children.” The main purpose of the article is to call for trusted adults to give accurate and unbiased sex ed info to youth in a calm and confident way. She likens it to watching a musical. You leave a musical performance humming the melodies, but can’t really remember most of the words. The tune is there. The feeling you got from the songs is there, but the words are not.

When Sex Ed is taught in a negative way or if the person teaching is noticeably uncomfortable the youth will have a negative or uncomfortable attitude towards sex and sexuality, and might not really remember why they feel that way.

In the late ’90s reports were coming in that youth were having sex at younger and younger ages, teenage pregnancy was on the rise, and sexual abuse was just beginning to be talked about. Wilson says,

“In light of these sobering realities many school and community programs have focused on ‘disaster prevention’ – educational efforts designed to help children avoid specific sexuality related problems. Thus some states mandate AIDS education without providing any sexuality education. Many primary classrooms offer child-sexual-abuse prevention though often in a broader discussion of family life and sexuality. This sexual learning environment is potentially hazardous for children. What message would you get about sex if the only thing you were told in formal settings was that some adults force children to have sex and that sex can lead to AIDS?”

I think that this attitude – that of educating the whole person – is what led to the way I was taught to teach health and sexuality information today. We do a lot of bias inventories at trainings. What biases do you have, and how do you overcome those or set them aside to provide the necessary accurate, judgement-free education that is so important? We get instruction on how to properly answer a values-laden question without imposing any of our values onto a student. And we teach youth about their whole selves. Puberty, reproductive anatomy, communication, consent, healthy relationships, STIs, contraception, gender and sexuality. And sexuality as orientation not as sex as a whole. (Although that’s sometimes an important part of the conversation.)

Abstinence-only education is harmful. It teaches values where a child and their family should be the one to make that decision. It is stigmatizing and often contains negative information (if any) about the LGBTQIA+ community. And it is shaming, especially for the survivors of sexual abuse and assault who might be sitting in the classroom. Abstinence-only education is what Wilson was talking about as hazardous. We aren’t going to talk about sex before marriage unless it leads to a disease like AIDS (even though it’s HIV that is transmitted and not AIDS – language is important, friends). This type of education is the negative and stigmatizing form of education that is harmful. And it’s just not effective. Countless research studies show that abstinence-only regions have higher numbers of teenage pregnancy and higher rates of STI transmission.

Teenagers have sex. They do. About half of all STIs diagnosed in the U.S. are diagnosed in someone between the ages of 15 and 24 (25% of the sexually active population). I know that we’re taught to ignore it as an issue in a sort of, well if I don’t know about it then it’s not happening sort of way. And youth will have sex even if their parents and teachers tell them not to, only they probably won’t use condoms because they don’t know how or where to get them and are afraid that someone might see them buying them and tell their parents. (Hence the teenage pregnancies and STIs.) And it is our responsibilities as trusted adults to give them the information that can keep them safe. We have to tell them about condoms and show them condoms and not let them see any sort of discomfort at all. Condoms are tools to keep you safe. And 85% of youth do use them. But that number could be much higher.

Birth Control prevents pregnancies, and there are even methods that you have inserted by a doctor and then don’t have to think about for YEARS. How convenient for a teenager who can’t remember to eat breakfast before they rush off to school or to do the dishes before Mom gets home.

HIV is a big deal. It exists in our communities. It’s actually on the rise in Iowa, although is slowly declining overall in the U.S. And if youth know those things. If we can help them to understand just how serious HIV was just a few decades ago, and that they are still at risk today. If we can arm them with the knowledge of ways to keep themselves safe. If we can make sexuality just a normal part of life that they need to consider just like they do everything else? Then progress can happen.

I will continue to think about the historical beginnings of what I do on a daily basis. And I will make every effort to keep the progress going. We’ve come a long way since the ’80s, and sometimes that makes people forget and take things lightly. But I will do my best to not let that historical aspect of fear and triumph and perseverance disappear in the lessons I teach. I very much feel the weight of responsibility of the pioneers of sex and sexuality education.


Edit: I was just re-reading this, and I want to clarify that I do not teach fear. What I was trying to say in that last paragraph was that I try and help students understand some of the complexities of the history of HIV and why accurate sex ed is so important.