Massachusetts Activists Fight Battle for Comprehensive Sex Education in Schools

sex educationPlanned Parenthood of Massachusetts and its supporters march in the Boston Pride Parade; Photo courtesy of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts

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New England Pride Guide 2018 | Special Edition

By: Michael Givens/TRT Assistant Editor—

Bay State activists are working to advance a bill in the Massachusetts legislature that, if passed, would mandate that public school districts offering sex education curricula expand their courses to provide more in-depth information on a range of issues related to sex, relationships, sexual orientation, gender identity, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and pregnancy.

“An Act Relative to Healthy Youth,” also known as the “Healthy Youth Act”, has an explicit commitment to ensuring that youth are empowered to make healthy, fully-informed choices about their bodies and their relationships, according to the bill’s supporters.

“Over the last seven years, the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts (PPAF) has worked as part of a coalition to pass the Healthy Youth Act,” said Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and CEO of PPAF. “Parents, educators, school officials, and young people all support this legislation because they know it is an important step forward in building healthier communities and creating a culture based on inclusion and mutual consent. During this same period of time, STI rates have soared, and while Massachusetts has been able to make great progress in preventing unintended pregnancy among teens, Latinx, black, and LGBTQ teens remain more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy than white teens.”

The act explicitly mandates that school districts providing sex education courses in Massachusetts do so in a way that is medically accurate and age appropriate. The bill would also ensure that these districts are teaching youth about healthy relationships, abstinence, proper contraceptive use, and pregnancy along with differences in sexual orientation and gender identity.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC), which has endorsed the legislation, said that the spirit of the bill is to ensure that students are fully supported when it comes to making decisions about their bodies.

“We have student wellness as a very high priority, and our board has supported legislation that attempts to promote healthful practices for all students,” he said. “We include sexual awareness and health in that sphere. You have to be healthy to excel in school and education is a route that we know works. A lot of students depend on the adults to create the right environment for them. This is a way.”

 

The Data

The core argument against abstinence-only sex education courses is that the current framework isn’t effective in discouraging youth from engaging in premarital sex and often omits pivotal information about safe sex practices, consent, and STIs.

“The scary truth of the matter is that the delay of comprehensive health education in Massachusetts is having real and lasting implications on the lives of youths,” said Corey Prachniak-Rincón, director of the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth. “Every day that we wait is another day in which students are not learning how to take care of and protect themselves. It’s another day in which they are at risk.”

According to the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, Advocates for Youth, the data backs up Prachniak-Rincón’s contention.

“No abstinence-only program has yet been proven through rigorous evaluation to help youth delay sex for a significant period of time, help youth decrease their number of sex partners, or reduce STI or pregnancy rates among teens,” reads a portion of a 2009 report authored by the organization.

An international study released in 2015 by the United Nations (UN) found that comprehensive sex education curricula in several nations helped reduce STI diagnoses and unintended pregnancies among youth, foster healthier intimate and social relationships, and delayed youth from engaging in sex.

Prachniak-Rincón, who uses the pronouns they, them and their, also said that bills like the Healthy Youth Act go a long way in not only affirming the identities of LGBTQ youth but protecting them also.

“What we really hear from students most of all is that it’s an affront [to] their dignity for them to sit through health classes and hear a curriculum that was designed as if they do not exist—that they don’t want to be ignored anymore—that they want to be included,” they said. “We should be able to provide that much to our young people in the Commonwealth.”

On May 10, the Commission released a report on the state of LGBTQ youth and the findings showed that this population still faces severe disparities when it comes to HIV and other STI diagnoses, effective condom usage, and rates of pregnancy.

“LGBTQ students also may lack in-school support for attaining and maintaining good health as the Commonwealth does not require that comprehensive, age-appropriate, and inclusive sexual health education be provided to all students … ” a section of the report reads before sharing some startling statistics.

It notes that infection rates for HIV, syphilis, and gonorrhea for sexual minority (gay, bisexual) males is still increasing in Massachusetts, as well as nationally. Behavioral risk factors increasing the likelihood of pregnancy were also found to be high for young sexual minority (lesbian, bisexual) females.

“One large national study showed that sexual minority girls were twice as likely as other girls to report having their first sexual experience before the age of 14 (42 percent to 22 percent),”  a section reads. “Sexual minority girls were also twice as likely to have had more than five sexual partners (21 percent to nine percent). This correlated with significantly higher rates of pregnancies among sexual minority teenagers compared to other teenagers.”

 

“Sex is like fire”

Hannah Liebscher, a senior at Cambridge School of Weston, is a peer educator who said she knows first-hand the damage abstinence-only sex education curricula can have.

“This is partly because [the class] was taught by someone out of touch with my generation and our needs, and whose personal ideas were allowed to influence his teaching,” she said of the experience. “He was conservative and awkward and didn’t want to talk about sex with teens, so he just told us not to have it or we’d get STIs! I wanted to ensure that this wasn’t happening to teens and young people growing up in my area.”

According to Childs-Roshak, there are other disturbing anecdotes of youth being poorly served by current sex education practices.

“One young man shared that he thought something was wrong with him and questioned his mental health because he was attracted to other men, but nothing in his sex education class acknowledged this as a possibility,” she said. “He’s now found his voice and is comfortable and proud of who he is, but no one should be left feeling like they don’t belong or don’t fit in—especially our young people. Your sex education class should be a space of empowerment, not shame.”

In another instance, she quoted an instructor for a sex education program called Heritage Keepers: “Sex is like fire. Inside the appropriate boundaries of marriage, sex can be a great thing! Outside of marriage, sex can be dangerous!”

“The Healthy Youth Act would protect young people from the shaming, harmful, and often inaccurate information used by abstinence-only-until-marriage programs,” she stressed. “Study after study has shown abstinence-only programs do not help young people prevent STIs or unintended pregnancy or prepare young people for the real-life situations they will face. They also stigmatize conversations about sex, making young people less likely to talk to a trusted adult when they need help.”

For Koocher, his decision to support the legislation comes from his own personal experience.

“I have a long background in this topic, including my early work as an admitting officer at a health provider that was doing more abortions in Massachusetts than almost anyone else,” he said. “They were ‘therapeutic’ abortions at that time. I escorted far too many students into the delivery room for their saline injections and way too many anxious, terrified females to the physicians’ and nurses’ offices to prepare them for the clinical services they were to receive.”

Seeing the impact of young teenage girls experiencing unwanted pregnancies was a motivation to support more robust sex education curricula, according to Koocher.

“I realize that these kids represented every element of society—rich and poor, every race, and every end of the political spectrum,” he said. “I determined that, despite what one thinks about reproductive choice, the obvious route is education and prevention as the first step to avoid more difficult decisions. I also realized that reproductive health advice is the easiest thing in the world to give … to somebody else.”

 

#MeToo

The #MeToo movement has also bolstered advocates’ arguments for the necessity of the Health Youth Act.

“In 2015, nine percent of Massachusetts teens reported experiencing non-consensual sexual contact,” said Katia Santiago-Taylor, advocacy and legislative affairs manager for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC). “This needs to change. Comprehensive sex ed that focuses on consent is a powerful tool in reducing and preventing sexual violence. It addresses sexual violence and assault at their roots.”

Childs-Roshak agreed.

“The alarming number of sexual assault incidents experienced by young people makes clear [that] we can’t wait until college to talk about consent,” she said. “Young people need to know how to talk about sex before they start having sex, so they are prepared to handle difficult situations now, once they are in college and throughout their lives.”

According to Prachniak-Rincón, the statistics for LGBTQ youth who experience sexual violence is quite sobering.

“In Massachusetts, LGBTQ youth are three times as likely as other youth to experience sexual contact against their will … ” reads a portion of the Youth Commission report.

“[The bill’s passage] will help our young people to identify when they have been wronged and to avoid causing harm to others,” they said. “Certainly, at this moment of a national discussion on harassment and consent, we should be able to appreciate that our youth need to be educated to be able to understand that conversation, and for theirs to be the generation that changes things.”

 

Getting it Right the First Time

Hannah Liebscher said she credits her experience with peer educators after the sex ed class with providing her with the proper education she needed.

“I was lucky enough to be a part of the Get Real Teen Council peer education program and learn more about myself and relationships and sex, but other people may not get that second chance at learning these vital materials,” she said. “So we have to make sure they get a good education the first time.”

“What is being discussed right now in the State House is not an extreme plan,” said Prachniak-Rincón. “It’s actually a fairly conservative approach that does not require schools to provide sexual health education, and that—even in schools that self-select to provide sexual health education—does not require students to attend it. It basically just says that schools that offer optional sexual health classes, they cannot discriminate by excluding entire populations from the conversation, and they cannot use curricula that have been proven in countless studies to not work. I do not think that ideas like holding our schools accountable to deliver quality education or using curricula that do not actively discriminate against part of the class, are radical or divisive. It’s common sense.”

Santiago-Taylor said that the bill’s passage will prepare a well-informed population of young people to enter the real world.  

“Ultimately, it means more education, better engagement, and healthier youth,” she said.

Learn more about the Healthy Youth Act here.