I remember how I felt two years ago, in the spring semester of my sophomore year at Sherwood High School in Montgomery County, anticipating the unit we were about to study in health class. So far, we had learned about pedestrian safety and how to act in an emergency. But now we were getting to the good stuff -- sex education. I couldn't wait.
I'm not sexually active, nor have I ever been, but sex ed has always been interesting to me, as it is to my friends and other students I know. Perhaps that's because, despite all the TV programs, movies and jokes about sex, it's still considered a taboo subject. Yet it's hyped up to be this best-feeling-you'll-ever-have act. So why wouldn't teenagers want to learn about it, or maybe even try it? Let's face it: As premature and saddening as teenage sex might be, teenagers do still "do it."
That's why we need sex ed. I've thought about this a lot lately as a sex-ed controversy played out here in Montgomery County, where some parents succeeded in blocking a new curriculum that included a video using a cucumber to demonstrate how to put on a condom, as well as discussion of homosexuality and bisexuality. The parents argued that the course was promoting homosexuality and promiscuity, but to me it just seemed that the county school system was recognizing that more in-depth instruction on sex will make students better prepared for the world we will face as adults.
The protesting parents were mostly people with strong religious backgrounds or very conservative values. Many of them believe that sex education should not be taught in the schools at all, because teenagers shouldn't be participating in sex in the first place, and it's up to parents to talk to them about things like homosexuality. That argument might be valid if today's society were similarly conservative, but it doesn't seem to me that it is. Our culture's values, and the media's values, are nowhere close to the traditional values of yesteryear. Sex saturates the media, particularly shows aimed at the teenage market.
Take this example: A few weeks back, I was relaxing on a Thursday night with my parents, my 16-year-old sister and some close family friends. As 8 p.m. rolled around, we all gathered around our television set to watch the new episode of Fox's "The OC." The teenage drama picked up from where it had left off the week before, but then suddenly, the screen was flooded with pictures of teenagers making out, grinding and groping -- under shirts and up skirts. Those images were probably the closest the network could have gotten to airing soft-core porn. But the scary thing is that this picture of a wild, unsupervised party with sex and drinking sometimes is the reality of teenagers' nightlife.
So let's make sure that they know how to protect themselves. Sex education provides information about contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy. Now, of course, the first thing the sex-ed teachers say is that the best way to prevent pregnancy or disease is, obviously, not to engage in sex. They tell us that we have time, that sex is a serious thing, that we should think carefully about the consequences of having sex too soon. But they also acknowledge that teens have a great desire to know about topics that interest them, and one of those topics is definitely sex. And they acknowledge the reality -- that some of us are going to do it no matter what, so we'd better know the risks.
In my health class, the teacher brought in a poster of all the possible contraceptives, complete with information about how effective they were in preventing pregnancy and STDs, as well as actual models of them. They ranged from those that require a prescription to ones you can find on the shelves of your local drugstore. We also had guest speakers to help us better understand certain topics. One speaker was a college girl, pretty and friendly. Her appearance and personality lightened the mood and calmed some of my classmates' (still) uncomfortable nerves. She had a board titled "Risk of Contracting STDs" that was divided into three columns: low, medium and high risk. She gave out a variety of Post-it notes, each detailing a sexual activity. They included the usual acts, from heavy kissing to intercourse, but also a few off-the-wall ones like showering together or jello-wrestling (plenty of kids participate in such things).
One by one, everyone in the class went up to the board and put their Post-it in the risk column where they thought it belonged. Then the speaker went through each Post-it, explaining what the action was (if students didn't know), moving it if it was in the wrong column, and explaining why the activity would or wouldn't put you at risk of disease. It was interesting to learn that some activities I thought were harmless (such as French kissing) could, in fact, expose you to an STD like herpes.
I think that sex education should be as in-depth as possible. Obviously, elements of pornography shouldn't enter the classroom, but using substitutions, like the cucumber used in the new curriculum video, can provide visuals that make the instruction come to life. I was assigned a project on STDs once and had to research their symptoms and bring in pictures of them. It's easy to warn teenagers about STDs and their harsh effects, but actually seeing what an infection looks like is much more powerful.
The classroom's the perfect place where teens can not only get answers to questions they may be embarrassed to ask their parents but also hear about others' experiences and get advice. I remember how once our teacher split the class into two groups: one all girls, the other all boys. She gave us each notecards on which we wrote two or three things we wanted to know about the opposite sex. Then the girls collectively answered all the boys' questions, and vice versa. It gave us all insight into the other sex's feelings and mechanics without any awkwardness. I was able to ask questions about male sexuality that I wouldn't have felt comfortable asking my father.
Sex education is especially valuable for kids who don't have a good family situation or who don't have an outlet for asking questions. In the past couple of years, I've been approached by two girls who asked me where they could get birth control that didn't require their parents' consent. They were scared of their parents and clearly didn't feel comfortable talking to them about their decision to become sexually active or about birth control.
I have a very open relationship with my own parents. They taught me from a young age how a baby is made, and my mom always reminded me that if I needed to talk, she would make no judgments. That makes me feel secure; I know that if I found myself in an uncomfortable situation, I could ask my parents for help or advice. Unfortunately, many families don't have that same receptive line of communication when it comes to sex. It's almost as if some parents believe that if they don't inform their children about sex, then the kids won't do it.
In high school relationships, it's usually assumed that if a couple dates for four months or more, they're having sex. I was involved with a serious boyfriend for a year and a half. At one of my many varsity soccer games, a few of my young teammates were sitting on the bench guessing which players were virgins and which had "lost their v-cards." When they got to me, they automatically assumed that my boyfriend and I had had sex. When I corrected them, they were shocked. At my school, at least half the senior class is in or has been in a serious relationship -- that's a pretty big number of sexually active teens, if you go by the four-month rule. If you consider the number of parent-child relationships where there's poor communication on sexual matters, where teens can't ask their parents about protection or contraception, you should be thankful that Montgomery County schools offer sex education.
Without sex ed back in 10th grade, some of my friends wouldn't have known about "the pill." As much as parents would like to deny, ignore or change raging teenage hormones, it can't be done. Even though it's been a mere two years since I had sex ed, so much has changed. Sophomores now are exposed to even more sexually explicit images and content than I was when I was 15.
Teenagers require more detailed education to keep up with modern culture, and the Montgomery County public schools acknowledge that need. Sex education is not intended to poison virgin minds, but to educate the growing, hormonal adolescent in preparation for one of the biggest decisions of his or her life.
Paige Dearing will graduate tomorrow from Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Md. She will be attending Syracuse University in the fall.