What are Cuyahoga County teens saying about sex? Community conversation lessons, themes and evidence

All of the themes are based on the thoughts, feelings, and ideas that were expressed by students. This is not intended to be an exhaustive listing, reproduction of original notes or formal research. Each theme represents a collective concept or lesson and is supported by quotes recorded by staff during each of the conversations.

Education related to sexual and reproductive health is inconsistent, episodic, reactive, and often one dimensional.

  • “I had good sex ed in middle school but not in high school”
  • “We only had one class in high school”
  • “I got sex ed for the first time in high school and they stressed abstinence and said you’re disgusting if you have sex
  • “I had sex ed in 9th grade for a week…there was too much distraction in class to hear what she was saying and what I could hear, I knew already”
  • “I had it in 5th grade then senior year with nothing in between
  • “Periods, STDs, then questions – very abbreviated”

“We need something other than porn as an example”

When information is provided, it is abstract, out of context for the time/place in the teens life and is not revisited when it becomes more concrete/relevant.

  • “As you get older you get more curious and more peer pressure. You need to know what you’re supposed to do in that situation and how to handle it.”
  • “In middle school…it doesn’t really apply to us yet. Once you get to high school they forget about the class and don’t remember what you learned in 7th grade. While you’re learning it you don’t understand it or know how to apply it.”

Sex education in school is viewed as important but corny/outdated, with a few notable exceptions.

  • “The thing with bananas and the condoms”
  • “The teacher was so funny, I didn’t take the information as serious as it was”
  • “My teacher got annoyed with me because I was laughing at the video…it was really outdated”
  • “This one teacher always uses old diagrams and old videos”
  • “My sex education was superficial and not informative – what about the 3 hours leading up to sex?”
  • Crusty teacher with a powerpoint and everyone is uncomfortable (lots of pictures)”

“As you get older you get more curious and more peer pressure. You need to know what you’re supposed to do in that situation and how to handle it.”

Adults are not coming across as genuine or on their side, often giving mixed messages and pushing harmful gender norms.

  • “They are trying to make you uncomfortable, the teacher’s point is to make it as awkward as possible”
  • “They give you all this information but don’t want you to use it ever”
  • “I don’t know my teachers that well. How accepting are they, really?  How much are they really telling me?”
  • “Pregnancy options are not discussed – girl gets pregnant, her life is over…fatherhood is not discussed or that it took 2 people to make the baby”
  • “Adults should just be quiet and listen so we can feel comfortable talking to them”
  • “They’re going to judge you; why would I tell you something if I feel like you’ll beat me up”
  • “It’s different for boys and girls – girls are put in situations to discourage sex and boys are encouraged to have sex like ‘go get that’”

“…I had to learn stuff online.”

High school students are missing fundamental information about their bodies, reproduction, how HIV is transmitted/prevented, and the difference between contraception and STI prevention – all topics that are traditionally covered in sex education and even traditional health classes.

  • “STD’s are covered but not how common they are”
  • “All of the menstruation education is about the mechanics of it…not about real life experiences, what to do, or that it can be really painful”
  • “I knew a friend he got burnt and never knew about condoms”
  • “We didn’t learn anything about the menstrual cycle. I had to learn stuff online. I didn’t know how tampons worked until I was 16. It was weird and scary. Sex ed was just anatomy didn’t talk about other stuff really.”
  • Sex ed should be explanatory/real life. What to do if it’s itching down there. I didn’t know how to use a condom until I was actually experiencing it.

Positive messages about sex, sexuality, and relationships are missing or not apparent to high schoolers; this is more prevalent among high schoolers who identify as a sexual minority.

  • “LGBT safe sex is not discussed”
  • “LGBT sex is never brought up except for HIV – gay men get AIDS”
  • “LGBTQ sex ed isn’t there. Addressing STI’s should always be inclusive in terms of who someone may be having sex with. The assumptions teachers make isn’t helpful.”
  • “Sex ed doesn’t talk about gay people – is it made for gay people, not really. It’s not encompassing of people in the gay community.  There is a lot of prevention that could happen with sex ed especially among the gay community.”
  • “Learn about safer sex, not shaming each other”

Health programs are shrinking and not taken seriously.  Many schools have reduced their health requirements and offer an online option (mostly Brigham Young University) which is taken less seriously, offers no emotional/social support, and includes ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage/religiously based sex education.

  • “We had a day long thing in 5th grade—we watched a movie. In high school we have the option of online on in class health. The online option is through BYU and I wouldn’t say it’s all encompassing. It could be improved.”
  • “The quality of sex ed in middle school was really good but the information was hard to process in 7th and 8th We need something in high school.”
  • “We watched a video from 70s about birth. They didn’t cover menstruation or things like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome or endometriosis or basic functions. They said sex was bad, this is how you get pregnant. Only had two health talks over the span of seven years.”

Teens primarily rely on their friends and the internet when they have questions or want to learn more about sexual and reproductive health.  Technology adds to confusion and grey areas.

  • “I had to learn about oral and anal sex through the internet”
  • “We need something other than porn as an example”
  • “The first porn I watched…thought rape was another word for sex”
  • “I use tumblr or other social media and look-up hashtags”
  • “Google…looking at the first thing that comes up”
  • “Yahoo Answers”
  • “Google, WebMD”
  • “I ask my friends if something is normal”

Sex education can’t overcome experience as an important part of the learning process.  This comes up frequently with queer youth and learning about queer sex.  Education is not translating in real life circumstances.

  • “Sex ed doesn’t talk about the emotional parts of sex that can happen…hook ups can get messy”
  • “Experience is an important part of the learning process. Sex ed can’t really overcome that. No amount of pictures of the Eiffel tower is the same as actually seeing it in person. You have to gain experience outside of the classroom.”
  • “Sex ed should be explanatory/real life. What to do if it’s itching down there. I didn’t know how to use a condom until I was actually experiencing it.”

Other Findings/Observations:

Aside from formal instruction, the roles of parents/adults and culture came up repeatedly as both positive and negative influences. Young people want to talk to their parents but only if they feel emotionally and physically safe. Cultural attitudes and misinformation can easily influence even the most informed young person. Young people know and want to learn about healthy relationships, consent, and navigating difficult conversations/situations with intimate partners, friends, and family – they yearn for role models and other healthy frames of reference.

“Society is very sexualized like in the movies and everywhere. Porn is really out there. Everyone’s views on sex are out there. It used to be treated so seriously. It was more private.”

The influential role of parents and other trusted adults cannot be understated. Parents feel firm in their beliefs and simultaneously unprepared to support their young people in developing sexually healthy lives and attitudes. If sex is a universal norm, information about sexual and reproductive health should surround individuals throughout their lives – parents are instrumental in building this foundation for their kids, schools are instrumental in ensuring all students have access to information, and society and systems are instrumental in ensuring the lessons are encouraged and supported though access to information and services.