Lessons in Denial: A Student Perspective on High School Health Class

April 2, 2013

by Hanna Pennington 

Hanna PenningtonNo one ever really wants to take health class; it’s a required course, something people try to get out of the way so they aren’t that about-to-graduate senior who still has to take health. And that’s because at most high schools, health class doesn’t offer much — and everyone knows it.

I spent 80 minutes every other morning in health class during the second semester of my sophomore year, and when faced with an end-of-the-year survey about the class, I realized that the time had not been “spent,” but wasted.

We had not discussed birth control; condoms were the only form of contraception mentioned, and they came up only in the context of preventing STIs. A significant number of high school students are already taking hormonal birth control, like the pill, for a variety of reasons, whether to regulate hormone imbalances that can cause acne, reduce the pain of bad menstrual cramping, or because they are having sex, but the pros and cons of the pill were never addressed.

Through reading “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and other feminist websites and books, I have learned about many types of birth control. But this is because I care about this kind of thing. Most people don’t know what they should have been taught until it’s too late.

Another way in which my health class was insufficient, and also offensive, was that LGBTQ people were only mentioned in the context of HIV/AIDS, which we learned about by watching the film “And The Band Played On.” There was no other discussion.

As a bisexual person, I felt shortchanged. I sought out resources online, much the way I did with birth control, but again, this didn’t make up for the lack of class information. The majority of high school students are straight, but it is important to provide for those who aren’t, or who might be questioning. It is important to learn about how to have safe gay sex, not only safe straight sex; that information is a lot harder to find, unless you know where to look.


Related: A “Real” Sex Ed Story: A Teenager Recalls Lessons From “Our Whole Lives”


Another issue we did not discuss is consent. People need to learn not only that it’s OK to say no, but that enthusiastic consent is the key to happy, healthy sex (in fact, there’s a petition to make consent a mandatory part of sex-ed in public schools).

Abuse, both physical and sexual, should also be discussed. And resources should be provided for everything: where to get help if you’re being abused, where to purchase prescription contraception at a discount, where to get tested for STIs, and the number for the closest Planned Parenthood, for starters.

Finally, we never discussed masturbation. It is important for students to know that instead of it being something unholy or disgusting, masturbation is a perfectly healthy and important way to explore one’s own body and sexuality.

According to research by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), comprehensive sex education is more effective in preventing teen pregnancy than abstinence-only education. In her 2008 New Yorker article “Rex Sex, Blue Sex,” Margaret Talbot analyzed the differences in sexual patterns of teenagers living in different parts of the country, including the prevalence of teen pregnancies and STIs and use of contraception.

In conservative red states, where abstinence-only education is the norm and religion dictates much of the discourse, teenagers have sex earlier, usually without protection. In more liberal blue states, where there is often (but not always) more comprehensive sex education, teenagers wait longer to have sex and use protection more often when they do.

Although I live in blue-state New York, my health class was not all that. It is possible to acknowledge teenagers being sexual without encouraging it, but our teachers didn’t acknowledge any part of it. It is irresponsible to teach the class assuming that everyone is and will remain abstinent until marriage.

The 2009 documentary “Let’s Talk About Sex” examines young people’s attitudes toward and knowledge of sex and sexuality, comparing America’s largely insufficient programs to those of places like the Netherlands, where parents and children talk openly about sex (and which have lower rates of teen pregnancy and STIs).

Although I was briefly tempted to move overseas, there are comprehensive sex-ed curriculums in the United States, even if they can be hard to find.

One of my friends attends Rye Country Day School in Rye, N.Y. A program there encourages underclassmen to ask upperclassmen leaders whatever they want about sex, relationships, and so on. I was really impressed when I first heard about this, as it fosters an environment that removes shame from asking questions, which is how people get the answers they need.

At Manhattan Country School, there is a sex-ed curriculum, designed by Dr. Cydelle Berlin, that involves theater arts and peer education. Trained actors answer questions while in character. There is a box in every classroom in which students can leave anonymous questions.

The Unitarian Universalist Church, instead of strictly discouraging or not discussing sex as other churches often do, teaches a K-12 sex ed curriculum called “Our Whole Lives.” As stated on the website, the program “not only provides facts about anatomy and human development, but also helps participants clarify their values, build interpersonal skills, and understand the spiritual, emotional, and social aspects of sexuality.”

This curriculum is based on SIECUS’ “Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education,” which spans the same age range and includes such important topics as body image, gender identity, masturbation, abortion, and sexuality and society.

When reading this curriculum, I was pleasantly surprised how enlightened, inclusive, and accurate it was. But this should not be surprising; accurate language should be the norm.

It is bad enough that decisions about women’s health are made mostly by male politicians, but it is even more disheartening when you realize that some of them have no idea what they’re talking about. High school students aren’t the only ones who need basic education about reproduction, but it’s a good place to start.

Hanna Pennington is a high school senior in New York whose first foray into feminist activism was at age 7, when she wrote a letter to a children’s magazine protesting the omission of Sacagawea in an article about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 

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