By Stephanie Auteri
In a predictable bit of news, the results of a study released this past September show that students consider most sex-education programs to be out-of-touch, outdated, and lacking in the information that might actually prove useful to them. Among the deficiencies reported by teenagers were a focus on fear-based lesson plans, curricula that alienate LGBTQ+ students, instructors untrained in actually providing useful sex-ed, and a failure to acknowledge that some young people are — spoiler alert — sexually active.
When it comes down to it, though, these inadequacies do not stem from lack of trying on the part of certified sexuality educators. There are disparities in curricula, and in resources: Federal funding for sex-education flows to both abstinence-only and evidence-based approaches, and decisions about curricula are made on a state-by-state — and district-by-district — basis. There are still only 13 states that require sex-education to be “medically accurate.”
In fact, in the past year, 23 bills were introduced with the intention of restricting the quality of sex-ed. Such restrictions included moves to limit access to information about reproductive health options, and to exclude qualified sexuality educators from schools based upon their affiliation with abortion providers.
While the majority of these bills failed to advance, in many cases, educators continue to be hamstrung by red tape. And they worry that — in the wake of the most recent presidential election — their jobs will only become more difficult. What is an enterprising, conscientious sex-educator to do?
Recently, I attended the National sex-ed Conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where I saw sexuality educator Francisco Ramirez present a keynote on “hacking” sexual health. During his talk, Ramirez spoke about how educators might possibly shake things up, in some cases taking sex-ed outside the classroom in order to reach those who need it most. Happily, many educators are already doing this, systematically toppling many of the barriers that have long stood in their way. Throughout the conference, I was reminded of the many forms such resourcefulness can take. Here are the six most important fixes currently happening in American sex-ed.
1. Where can students get the answers they crave without fear of embarrassment or other negative repercussions? These days: their phones.
Sex-educators often employ anonymous question boxes in their classrooms, but the new-media generation is taking this idea of anonymity to the place where it thrives best: social media. I recently wrote about a variety of new social-media applications, YouTube series, and other online resources that allow teens to seek out accurate sexuality information anonymously. Since then, it seems that not a day goes by where I don’t hear about a new sex-ed app.
What’s important to remember about any of these sex-ed hacks is that just because a program works in one place, that doesn’t mean it will work in every community.
One of the more recent ones to catch my eye is Capptivation’s Reach Out, an app that provides sexual assault survivor resources to college-age students. According to Capptivation, a similar app for high schoolers is on its way. And the Healthy Teen Network — a membership-based advocacy organization — is in the process of developing two phone apps, one for high school-aged teens, and one for people who are older. They were inspired to do so after receiving an RFP (a request for proposal — a document from an agency soliciting a proposal for a specific commodity or service) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Alongside the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC has been looking to fund the development of a mobile app that would support teen pregnancy prevention.
This push for sex-ed apps is not without precedent. A 2016 study on mobile phone-based interventions for smoking cessation showed that mobile interventions can lead to positive behavioral changes. And additional research — including a 2016 paper published in BMC Public Health — has shown that sexual-health apps remove certain barriers youth often feel in seeking out sexual-health services: namely, embarrassment. HTN is in the midst of conducting its own randomized control trials in order to determine the efficacy of its apps.
2. How can students take a leadership role in their own sex-education? Through peer-led sex-ed.
A recent review of 15 peer-led sexual-health education programs shows that peer-to-peer sex-ed can be successful at improving teens’ knowledge and attitude about sexual health — which is good news, considering that many teens don’t think adults are doing the best job. And just as with social-media apps, new peer-to-peer training programs are popping up all around the country. Teen PEP, which operates in both New Jersey and North Carolina, is one such program that trains teens to provide sex-ed to their peers at school. Another example is the team out of Planned Parenthood of North, Central, and South New Jersey, which leads an annual Teen Conference that students travel to on a one-day field trip.
In Austin, Texas, the Peer 2 Peer Project trains teens to teach both on school grounds and at other locations within their communities, going so far as to pay them for their efforts. In Baltimore, Maryland, the Healthy Teen Network and its subsidiary, the Healthy Teen Leadership Alliance, also empower teens to influence the field of sexual health. These are just a handful of programs among many that are handing the reins over to teens. It can be difficult to keep track of all the peer-led programs popping up around the country, but Advocates for Youth — an advocacy organization with its focus on adolescent sexual health — has gathered the results of numerous studies on the impact of peer education. These studies show how peer education reduces risky sexual behaviors and empowers teens, who seem to find their peers to be more credible than adult educators.
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