Valentina Forte-Hernandez is a Berkeley California born Immigrant/Reproductive rights activist. She is interning at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health this summer before returning to her second year at Hampshire college where she studies film production. During her first year of college she worked for Civil Liberties and Public Policy and wrote for the online political blog, The Black Sheep Journal. She is a 19 year old, biracial Latina who writes about topics that speak to her personally. She has voiced her opposition to the shaming of teen moms, Texas’ anti-abortion legislation, immigration reform that hurts the lives and rights of immigrants and now she writes about the need for comprehensive sexual education for teenagers:
Post By Valentina Forte-Hernandez
Teenagers are having sex and will continue to do so whether you like it or not. It’s nothing new, but people are still acting as if it were a shocking discovery. Whether you like it or not, the fact of the matter is that many teenagers are sexually active, not liking it does nothing to prevent teenagers from having sex and it certainly does nothing to protect them. Instead of frowning and wagging your finger, why don’t we put more effort into making sure teenagers are physically and emotionally safe when they do make the decision to have sex? We need sex ed that actually teaches teenagers how to be smart and safe about sex. We do not need education that shames us and our bodies, we don’t need to be taught that we shouldn’t talk about sex. Sex will be a part of our lives whether we choose to be sexually active or not, so we need to know about it and be prepared for it.
Opponents of comprehensive sex ed may claim that it puts dirty ideas in teenagers’ heads and encourages them to be sexually active. If that’s true, then could somebody explain to me why the states that take the abstinence only approach to sex ed have higher rates of teen pregnancy than states that require comprehensive sex ed? Abstinence only classes do not deter teenagers from being sexually active. These classes provide students with no resources or information about safety, they teach teenagers to be ashamed of their bodies and sexuality. Shaming teenagers about sex does nothing to protect them. Teaching abstinence only classes not only puts teenagers in danger of spreading disease and unwanted pregnancy, it also increases the chance that they will be in emotionally unsafe situations. If your teacher is saying that you are wrong for having sex, you’re not going to feel comfortable asking your teacher any questions if you are considering having sex. If a teenager already feels ashamed for having sex it is so much harder for them to come forward with an incident of sexual assault or rape. They have already been told sex is wrong, so who do they go to when something wrong has happened to them?
Comprehensive sex ed gives students the information to help them make their own decisions about their bodies and it gives them the confidence to be honest about their desires and experience. Students who have been given the tools to protect themselves have the knowledge and ability to practice safe sex, while students who don’t have any information may not know how to have safe sex. A teenager who has been told that being sexually active is their choice to make is more likely to have the confidence to refuse unwanted sex than one who has learned to be self-conscious and secretive about their sexuality. Teenagers in abstinence only classes are not learning about sex in school but they’re still having it so comprehensive sex ed is clearly not to blame for the fact that teenagers are sexually active.
Comprehensive sex ed is miles ahead of abstinence only classes when it comes to protecting teenagers, but that’s not to say it’s perfect. I grew up in California, a state that offers comprehensive sex ed and has just seen it’s lowest rate of teen births in 20 years. My first sex ed class happened every other wednesday afternoon. This was the only classes where the boys were separated from the girls. I don’t know what the boys were learning about while we were watching our teacher put tampons in glasses of water because we never talked about it. That was the problem, we didn’t talk to the boys about sex and the segregation of genders was teaching us that we shouldn’t have these discussions with each other. Some might say that these early sex ed classes should be taught separately so students feel comfortable asking embarrassing questions. Sex ed is uncomfortable no matter what, but we should have been going to that comfort and feeling that embarrassment along with the boys. We should be learning from an early age that it is okay to talk about ourselves with anyone, regardless of gender. In my first sex ed class, I was taught about my period, I was taught about contraception but I learned that my body, my experience as a girl was icky to boys and I should never talk to them about it.
All of my sex ed classes were severely lacking when it came to teaching us about the emotional aspects of sex. The word consent was never uttered, nor was there any discussion about any of the emotional choices that come with being a sexually active person. We never discussed the depiction of sex in popular culture which may not seem like it’s directly related to sexual safety, but considering that we are surrounded and influenced by dramatic, idealized depictions of sex, we probably should have at least one conversation about it. When our movies and advertisements are teaching us things like, girls who have sex are slutty, and if you have sex with him, he’ll stay with you forever it would have been beneficial to talk about the reality of choosing to be sexually active and to debunk some of these artificial depictions. There was no discussion of rape ever. Maybe the topic was avoid in hopes that it was an issue we would never have to deal with, but hoping for the best did nothing to prepare us for the worst, it did nothing to teach us about preventing rape, or what help was out there for us if we had had such an experience. We were given the number to a confidential hotline….Oh, and we watched an episode of Law and order: SVU once, that’s sufficient, right?
Maybe these conversations weren’t happening in my comprehensive sex ed class because adults didn’t feel like we were mature enough to discuss the emotional impacts of being sexually active but the fact is many of us were already sexually active so these conversations should have been happening. If we were old enough to learn about protection and use it we were old enough to learn about communicating with partners, and we were definitely old enough to learn that sex in the movies is miles different from sex in real life. We knew there were physical consequences to having unsafe sex, we saw the pictures. When it came to the emotional impact of having sex, we were left to figure it out on our own through trial and error and in sometimes the error did a lot of damage.
Sex ed needs to improve across the board. The abstinence only approach to sex ed needs to be thrown out the window because it doesn’t work. Any class that fails to discuss why being a safe and responsible sexually active person requires more than just using condoms needs to rethink their curriculum. Teenagers need to learn to be honest and confident in their sexual decisions. They need to know that it is not only okay to talk about sex, but that they should be talking about it! If you can’t have a real discussion about sex, you shouldn’t be having it. Sex ed should be about equipping teenagers with all the knowledge, resources and confidence to make the most best, most informed decisions for themselves. If your sex ed class isn’t rooted in teaching teens about sexual safety, then it is not serving the actual needs of teenagers. Sexual safety means physical protection, it means communication, it means honesty, self-awareness and respect. Stop trying to shame teenagers out of having sex, it won’t work. Protect and respect teenagers’ rights to make their own decisions about their own bodies.