House Republicans really got it wrong this week when they voted to divert $3 million (yes, million!) from programs aimed at preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Seems these guys want to spend that money on abstinence education instead.
I guess these folks haven’t seen the numbers proving abstinence education is not working. In 2013, Texas had the third-highest number of HIV diagnoses in the country, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Texas public schools are not required to teach sex ed, so it comes as no surprise to me that the Lone Star State also has one of the highest teen birth rates.
If passed, this budget cut will force us even further along a road that is leading our children to disaster. According to a report released by David Wiley, Ph.D., and Kelly Wilson, Ph.D., health educators at Texas State University in San Marcos, most Texas students receive NO instruction about human sexuality apart from “don’t do it.” I promise you guys, it is far cheaper to teach someone to use a condom then pay for unintended and possibly life-threatening consequences.
It saddens me that not much has changed in Texas classrooms in 20 years. I got most of my sex ed lessons the same places most kids still get them – from the cold, mean streets, school locker rooms and overheard bathroom conversations. In second grade, I brought my Barbie and Ken dolls to my mom after school one day. I stripped them down and started mashing them together and asked what it meant. Some girls were playing with their dolls that way on the playground and I didn’t understand why. That night, I got my first home perm and learned all about the birds and the bees. I was also enrolled into private school the next day. As you can imagine, my hair was awful, but I was a hit in the reading loft with my new-found information.
Then in fourth or fifth grade, I remember all the girls being dragged into a stuffy, dark little room and made to watch a film on underarm hair and menstruation. I only had more questions after the film. No one I knew had armpit hair and I was pretty sure none of us had periods yet. I remember feeling squeamish and completely MORTIFIED to learn that I would be bleeding like some wounded animal at some unknown time in the future. The entire event was not an experience that welcomed questions. When the lights went on, a stunned herd was shuffled back to class. I did not go home and ask my mom any questions this time. My hair was fabulous and I wanted it to stay that way. Plus, it felt … weird to talk about.
My next foray into sexual education didn’t happen until junior college when I learned how to put a condom on a piece of fruit. One of my teachers brought a condom and a banana to class one day and demonstrated for us. It was funny and scary and more than a little uncomfortable. But I am guessing I was not the only person in the room who actually learned something that day. My parents hadn’t discussed it with me, and I certainly didn’t learn anything in high school about pregnancy prevention. We were all young and beautiful and drunk back then, and I believe that teacher saved quite a few students from catching a baby or something worse that year! I thank you for your courage, sir.
I don’t know why we have perpetuated this culture of don’t ask-don’t tell/fear and shame about human sexuality and our bodies. It is the responsibility of parents to teach children about their self-worth and changing bodies, our job to teach them about sex and to set boundaries. We must teach our kids that there are long-term emotional and physical consequences to sex and intimacy. I know it can feel uncomfortable for us, but our children need to know how to protect themselves and where to turn for help. Not all parents know how to do this. They lack the information, the experience or the ability. So it then falls to schools and healthcare providers to help these children and families.
I am not advocating that we put boxes of condoms on the desks of every student in Texas, but I am saying we have to take a realistic approach to sex education and not a religious one. Republican state Rep. Stuart Spitzer is the amendment’s sponsor, and his basis for wanting abstinence-only education is founded on his spiritual belief that there should be no sex before marriage. I too am a Christian, but religion does not belong in the law-making process. Or maybe it does – but in the form of social justice where lawmakers guarantee the right to adequate food, clothing, shelter, education and health care. And what about the young couples who marry right after high school? Just because you are married does not mean you are ready to financially support or emotionally care for a baby. They deserve to know how to protect themselves from accidents as well.
We are learning more and more about the development of a young person’s mind. Adolescents often lack the ability to see the future, concerned only with the now. Because they are not adults, they often don’t make mature “grown-up” decisions. And I don’t believe they should pay for that with their lives. Don’t let out-of-touch politicians dictate what our children learn – or in this case, don’t learn – in schools.