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

By Hanna Pennington  — April 2, 2013

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. 

4 responses to “Lessons in Denial: A Student Perspective on High School Health Class”

  1. This is an excellent, well-reasoned editorial by a young woman we will surely be hearing more from as she contributes to our movement.

    One of the saddest things in my life as a psychiatrist is meeting with young women who went to faith-based schools that had abstinence-based sex ed curriculums. They come here, having had unprotected sex and often with an STD.

    They are babes in the woods. And they reap harm from their non-education.

  2. As a physician assistant who has worked in primary are with Medicaid patients, I can personally attest to the travesty that is the lack of comprehensive sex education, in Texas specifically. The default sex ed students in Texas are given is abstinence only.

    I saw an alarming number of unplanned pregnancies, STIs, and emotional damage done by depriving young people of proper sex education.

    I feel that if the school system had empowered people with accurate, complete information about sexuality, birth control, and disease prevention, I would not have had to counsel scores of young people about how to deal with a lifetime infection with herpes, explain to young women options for dealing with their unplanned pregnancies, teach people how could have recognized a syphilitic chancre so that the disease didn’t progress to secondary syphilis, educate young people about how chlamydia can be spread back and forth between partners if all parties are not treated at once, explain that the sore throat a patient has is gonorrhea because oral sex is not risk-free, and on and on.

    It’s criminal that this country’s education system deprives its young people of access to such crucial information at the time that they need it most. This deprivation of knowledge IS why this country has an epidemic number of teen pregnancies, it IS why we have a growth in antibiotic-resistant bacterial STIs, it IS why young women sometimes end up with complications of STIs like pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility, it IS why young people continue to be one of the groups with the greatest number of new HIV infections, etc.

    It is a real disservice not only to the young people affected by these negative outcomes of unprotected, uninformed sexual activity but to society as a whole.

    When will it stop? Only when WE change the system. We need to advocate for a revolution of the sex education system in our schools and accept nothing less than comprehensive education on sex and sexuality. Bottom line.

  3. Thanks for sharing the resources you have discovered. I find the same lack of information that you encountered has been ‘offered’ to many of my young college students–they are all quite eager for accurate sexuality education. I find it sad that many haven’t found it before college.

  4. For what it’s worth, there is a really good sex/sexuality education site called Scarleteen (www.scarleteen.com) that’s fantastic for teens and young adults where they can get very comprehensive, accurate information about sex and sexuality from the privacy of their computers. I’m sure there are lots of others, but it occurred to me to share this one to add to Hanna’s excellent list of resources. Thank you, Hanna, for your brave, impassioned, eye-opening post and all you do for advocacy for comprehensive sex education!

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