Sexuality Education is a Life-Long Process

by Sarah Elliott, Sexual Violence Specialist, The Advocacy Program at Umbrella (Newport Office)

Having just completed my first WholeSomeBodies workshop, I believe that this is the key to getting sex education into schools. After seeing participants’ realize how much the world impacts us as adults, and even more so as children, it’s evident that this is a workshop anyone working with children should attend.

As an undergrad, in order to graduate I had to take “Seminar in Educational Inquiry” and complete a final research project. I did mine on why sex education needed to be taught beginning at an early age and continued as a set program throughout the school years. At that point in my life I had never done advocacy and the only sex education I got was the “puberty video” in sixth grade and family health and wellness my junior year of high school. I had taken Intro to Psychology and Human Growth and Development as college courses but other than that, I had no idea what the world of sexuality education meant. I recently read over the paper I wrote, dated December 3, 2008, and from what I have learned since working here and attending many trainings, I was actually on the right track. Some of my information is not quite accurate and could use updating, but for the most part, even at that point in my life seven years ago, I knew something needed to change. I also knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy thing to do. In my 2008 paper I said,

“Sex ed is difficult to teach because controversy surrounds the subject from religious, parental and societal perspectives. If a parent does not want his child to learn about sex, can the school override him? Students are sent to school to learn what is right, so is it all right for a parent to deny his child the right to learn, when sex ed is only a subject like math, history or science? All children learn to use correct English and do math, so why is it tolerable to exempt a child from sex ed just because the parent says so? It’s the school that sets the curriculum, so parents should not challenge what is best for students.”[1]

Sexuality education is defined by SEICUS (Sexuality Information and Education Center of the United States) as being “a life-long process of acquiring information and forming attitudes, beliefs, and values. It encompasses sexual development, sexual and reproductive health, interpersonal relationships, affection, intimacy, body image and gender roles.” [2] With that said, and as I mentioned before, sex is a sensitive subject to teach to children. However, Act One (signed into law in 2009) in Vermont mandates sexual violence prevention be taught along with health education to students in kindergarten through 12th grade[3]. Act One required the convergence of a Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force whose goal was to develop the Vermont Sexual Violence Prevention Technical Assistance Resource Guide, which would then be used by schools to build capacity and knowledge of sexual violence prevention, state and local resources and nationally recognized best practices criteria for schools; and to help identify what SV prevention curricula and activities would work best for individual school communities. Sexual violence prevention is broadly defined but does not mandate or require a specific curriculum for a school to use[4].

With that information in mind, I feel the best approach is to talk to administrators; try to get them to schedule a WholeSomeBodies workshop, or even part of one. I would expect that they too would come to the same realization our participants in April came to. Prior to leaving, one participant commented that we had built so much together in the day and a half, and it’s sad that the conversation will just end. As we mentioned to her, it doesn’t have to end and hopefully school administrators would feel the same way and there would be the in to getting sexual violence prevention taught more in schools.

As a side note, I don’t want to assume that sexual violence prevention isn’t being taught, but I haven’t seen it happening – even with the mandate of having some sort of education in place.  I would like to know if it is being taught or in the planning stages of being taught because I looked at data from the Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey.  This survey is administered every other year to middle and high school students. There is a section in the high school survey about sexual behavior and orientation. It asks questions about the age of first sexual intercourse, frequency, sexual partners, sexual orientation, alcohol and drug use related to sexual intercourse, contraceptive use and HIV testing. [5]

Looking at Vermont statewide statistics from the 2013 YRBS, almost half (43%) of students reported that they had ever had sex. 4% reported having had sex before age 13. Even though the YRBS only asks questions about sexuality of the high school students, just knowing half of our students in high school are having sex should be enough to show the administration why sexuality education needs to be taught from kindergarten until 12th grade, in a set program that builds on age-appropriate information received at intervals depending on what grade students are in.

Education is about teaching ideas and information, then reinforcing those ideas periodically through more difficult interpretation and thought. Again, I know that sexuality education is a difficult area, but it is one of great importance, and while it may not have a direct impact on a student’s educational career, it is where they learn the most.  Teaching sexuality in a healthy, positive way is only going to benefit the students who will grow up to be sexually healthy adults and continue the process by teaching their own children, and so on.

[1] “The real story of the birds and bees.” Sarah Elliott. December 3, 2008.

[2] SIECUS- What is sexuality education?

[3] Act One, (Read the Act)

[4] Technical Assistance Resource Guide (TARG). 2010. “Introduction”