Comprehensive, medically accurate, evidence-based and inclusive sex education is vital to providing young people with the foundation they need to have healthy relationships, positive body image and to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.
Ohio is the only state in the country without health standards.
Ohio is the only state in the country without health education standards. The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention developed the National Health Education Standards to establish, promote and support health-enhancing behaviors for students in all grade levels from pre-Kindergarten through grade 12. While Ohio has a policy mandating dating violence prevention education, there is not a comprehensive (discussing puberty, anatomy, healthy relationships, consent, sexually transmitted infections, contraceptives, sexual orientation, gender identity, body image) sexual health education policy in place. Sex education practices vary from school district to school district, and even sometimes from school to school, or classroom to classroom. While a number of outside organizations provide comprehensive sex education locally, it is difficult, but necessary, to better understand what is being taught in local schools. As practitioners and advocates, it was important for us to better understand not only what is being taught in schools locally, but also what young people want to learn and where they currently seek information about their sexual health.
Sex education practices vary from school district to school district, and even sometimes from school to school, or classroom to classroom.
In order to better understand young people’s experiences with sex education, we hosted community conversations with high school students in Cuyahoga County. We wanted to know: when young people receive sex education; what they learned from sex education in their schools; what they wanted more/less of from sex education in their schools; where/who they go to for information; and what they wanted from the trusted adults in their lives (community conversation questions and answers here). We worked with local youth serving organizations and community partners to organize the meetings and increase our access to young people in diverse settings. We started each conversation by sharing information about 216Teens and The Collaborative for Comprehensive School Age Health. We told the young people that we were there to gather their stories, and that they would be shared with local community organizations in order to inform and improve future programming. The first question to the young people was always, “when you hear the phrase ‘sex education’ what comes to mind/how does it make you feel?” We hosted 10 conversations with young people (n= 100) and one conversation with parents (n= 4).
We wanted to know: when young people receive sex education; what they learned from sex education in their schools; what they wanted more/less of from sex education in their schools; where/who they go to for information; and what they wanted from the trusted adults in their lives
In each conversation, young people stated that they felt that the timing of sex ed classes was disjointed (often a puberty conversation in 5th grade an nothing again until 10th or 11th grade). The young peopled noted there was not discussion of healthy relationships or consent; LGBTQ identities were not included in conversation; they did not feel that they were given real life examples to contextualize the information; and that the adults were giving them information while also telling them not to use it, (i.e., don’t have sex). Some of the phrases we heard often were things like: “they give you all this information but don’t want you to use it ever”; “LGBT safe sex is not discussed”; “sex ed should be explanatory/relatable to real life.” A detailed list of themes can be found here.
Recommendations for key stakeholders include:
- Sex education should be cumulative—it should start in elementary school and go through high school. The information should build on itself. Sex education should not be a one-time conversation.
- Adults working with young people need ongoing training to have the tools to comfortably talking about sexual health with diverse groups.
- There is a gap in curriculum in the area of media literacy and pornography as well as the laws around sexting.
- Sex education should include more “real life” scenarios. Young people want step-by-step guides for how to get tested for a sexually transmitted infection, what to do if you need to call the doctor with a question and talking about/understanding what consent is.
- The more opportunities young people have to talk about sexual health, the better. Sex education should be happening in school, during after school programs and at home.
- Parents want more tools to use to better know how to talk to their kids about sexuality and sexual health. Parents also want support advocating for better sex education in their kids’ schools.
- Young people are going to their friends for advice and information. There is potential for more education and empowerment programming so that young people can educate their peers with accurate information/offering them reliable resources.