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In My Words: Don't halt progress of sex education in North Carolina

Professor Rebecca Todd Peters in the Department of Religious Studies writes for regional newspapers about efforts to amend a North Carolina law that defines sex education and why changes might do more harm than good. 

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Professor Rebecca Todd Peters

Don't halt progress of sex education in North Carolina
By Rebecca Todd Peters - rpeters@elon.edu

A couple of years ago, when my daughter was in seventh grade, I got a notice from her school that I could sit in on her first sex education class.

The film they showed was from the 1980s, complete with ginormous pads that were so outdated to look ridiculous to these kids, not to mention the clothes and the hairstyles. Girls watched the “girl” film and the boys watched the “boy” film.

I thought to myself – they should be watching each other’s films. They are clearly curious. More importantly, accurate information about each other’s bodies and their emerging sexuality empowers young people and lays the groundwork for more informed decision-making.

Effective “sex ed” ought to educate them not only about their bodies but also about safe and healthy sexual activity. Certainly this requires knowing something about how each other’s bodies work.

The Healthy Youth Act, which was passed by the North Carolina legislature in 2009, provides for comprehensive sexuality education in our public schools. While it begins with a focus on teaching abstinence, it also provides for educating our youth about sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and sexual abuse.

Thank goodness we don’t stop with abstinence. A comprehensive government report in 2007 demonstrated that abstinence-only programs have no impact on reducing teen sexual activity. Providing young people with information on making healthy choices related to sexual activity is essential to helping them become responsible adults.

Let’s be clear: Teens are having sex. On average, people in the United States have sex for the first time at the age of 17. Roughly 85 percent of women and 90 percent of men have had sex before they get married, most of them while still in their teens.

At the same time, teen pregnancy and abortion rates are down nationwide. In North Carolina the teen pregnancy rate is at an all-time low of 3.5 percent. Fewer unplanned pregnancies among our state’s teens also contributed to a 13 percent drop last year in the teen abortion rate. Research indicates that this is due to an increasing use of birth control and a slight increase in the age at which young people start having sex.

Comprehensive sex education is effectively empowering our teens to make more responsible decisions about their sexual activity.

Now, however, North Carolina legislators are attempting to erode the Healthy Youth Act with a new bill, H596, which will prevent educators from teaching students about legal, FDA-approved forms of emergency contraception. They are also attempting to water down the bill by changing the authoritative sources for the sex ed information from “experts in the field of sexual health education” to simply “experts.”

This non-specific term potentially opens the door for ideologically motivated misinformation to enter the sex education courses in our public schools.

Not only should these changes be immediately shut down by legislators, the Healthy Youth Act should be revised to eliminate the dominant focus on an abstinence-only approach to sexuality education.

As a Christian ethicist, I believe that human sexuality is a sacred gift to be shared with a long-term partner in the context of a committed relationship. Thinking about how to teach children, teens and young adults about the sacred value of our sexuality is a far more challenging and important ethical responsibility than simply telling them to “wait” until marriage. The data shows they aren’t waiting.

Teaching them respect for their bodies and their sexuality, and teaching them how to make good decisions about when and with whom to share the most precious gift of sexual intimacy, is a far more responsible and evidence-based approach to sexuality education.

Pretending our young people aren’t sexually active. Wishing that they weren’t sexually active. Judging them for being sexually active. None of these are good public policy approaches.

Sex education that focuses on “waiting for marriage” does not protect our young people or shape a healthy society. On the contrary, it puts them at risk – for pregnancy, for STDs, for poor choices about their sexual activity.

Attempting to prohibit educators from informing young people about the safe, legal option of emergency contraception is a politically motivated attack on women’s healthcare and the health of North Carolina’s teen girls. It must be stopped.

Values need to be taught in the home. At the same time, unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are public health crises that need to be addressed in our public schools.

If we are going to reform sexuality education in North Carolina, let’s do it in response to the data.

Rebecca Todd Peters is a professor of religious studies at Elon University and blogs at rebeccatoddpeters.com.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

 

Eric Townsend,
Staff
5/1/2015 11:45 AM