By Kate Boyle, Let’s Write About Sex Education Fellow at Jane’s Due Process & Austin Bat Cave
I can remember in 5th grade one day after recess the teachers gathered us up. They split us into two groups, boys and girls. I sat with my friends on the floor of the math classroom and then the nurse came in. She told us about how our bodies were changing. How we might start to smell weird and need to wear deodorant, that we might need to start wearing a bra under our shirts, and one day we would start our periods. The conversation was met by giggles and afterward a couple of uncomfortable conversations among friends.
I was lucky to already know what the nurse had taught us from a sex-education curriculum called our whole lives that my parents enrolled me in the previous year. Our Whole lives is a comprehensive sex education program that starts at the kindergarten level teaching kids about their body parts and is taught through adulthood. I also had parents at home who were always willing to answer my curious questions. Many of my friends weren’t this lucky and what they were taught about sex and sexuality came from shows they watched on TV and what they heard from older brothers and sisters.
Last year in 2019 Austin ISD unanimously approved a new inclusive and comprehensive sex-ed curriculum. The new curriculum includes discussing students’ sexuality at an early age. It teaches kids the correct terminology for their body, teaches them about consent, and about healthy relationships. I think that this curriculum was an important step for Austin ISD, but the curriculum did not come without opposition. Many people thought that the lessons taught in the new curriculum were demoralizing and unnatural. My mom and sister were among some of the people that waited at the school board meeting to support the curriculum. Austin is lucky to have so many people willing to support a crucial curriculum.
Other districts in Texas aren’t so lucky. According to the Texas Education Code, the State of Texas does not require any sex or HIV education to be taught in public schools, yet if a school chooses to teach these topics, it is required to emphasize abstinence until marriage. There are no requirements for specific content, including medically accurate information about contraception. According to the Texas Freedom Network, 25.1 percent of public schools in Texas don’t teach anything about sex-ed. Another 58 percent of school districts in the state teach abstinence-only curriculums. According to the Texas Campaign, the weight of scientific evidence finds that abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs are not effective in delaying initiation of sexual intercourse or changing other sexual risk behaviors. I think that it’s important for districts to teach an inclusive and comprehensive curriculum. Lessons in this type of curriculum include discussions on sexual and gender identity, consent, and safe sex. This is important because according to the Texas Freedom Network in Texas 59.5 percent felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation. I go to a school where many of the students feel safe expressing their sexual orientation but I do understand that there are still students who don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves at both my school and other schools. A more inclusive curriculum may make LGBTQ+ students feel more comfortable. The problem is that many districts have people who are less informed of these subjects or who oppose teaching sex-ed curriculums and in turn, will have fewer people advocating for a comprehensive and inclusive curriculum as Austin ISD has. This is why I think that teaching sex-ed should be re-enforced at the state level.
The question comes up; why some districts are teaching these comprehensive and inclusive sex-ed programs while other districts aren’t teaching anything? Austin is a liberal city in Texas with a big population of people in the LGBTQ+ community. Parents, students, teachers, and their supporters all advocated for the new curriculum. My mom who grew up in a smaller conservative town in Texas recalls her experience of sex-ed where in 4th grade the girls in her class learned about periods and then in 7th grade they learned about reproduction. Many people in more conservative districts have less knowledge about why inclusive and comprehensive sex education is important. The school boards may also be less flexible about changing their abstinence-only curriculum.
In conclusion, I think it is important that an inclusive and comprehensive sex-ed curriculum is required at the state level this way students are all receiving the education they need. Small ways of making a change in your district’s curriculum are joining your district’s school health advisory council and talking to your school district’s board. To see bigger change speak to representatives on the importance of new guidelines for Texas schools’ sex-ed curriculum.
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