When I was 17, I thought I might be pregnant. I had just fooled around with an acquaintance of mine, and my period was a few days late. Though there was no real penetration and fertilization was practically impossible, I convinced myself that I was carrying a fetus and that my life was over.
I took a pregnancy test. It came back negative, but I was still terrified. What if it was wrong? What if I had taken it too early? I frantically scoured the Internet for information. I was just a few months shy of my 18th birthday and learned that the law required my parents’ consent for an abortion. I knew I would never carry out a pregnancy at such a young age and that my conservative, immigrant parents would never agree to the procedure, so I considered my choices, which included traveling to a state without parental consent laws or asking my friend’s mom to take me to the clinic and pose as my own mother. On top of it all, I worried about the cost. I was hysterical — until I finally got my period.
This experience demonstrates how abysmal my sex education was. The overarching message that girls received in my high school health class was that if we had sex, we were going to get knocked up. Our school’s teen pregnancy rate was very high — we had a daycare full of students’ babies — so it seemed quite plausible to me. (My own vagina was also enigmatic to me. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I fully understood the components of my genital region, that I learned I urinated out of my urethra and not my vagina.)
What I needed was information and support, but I didn’t know where to turn. Unfortunately, our education system has not improved much since I was a teenager. Sex education continues to be under attack in the United States despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that a comprehensive curriculum can save young people’s lives. Teaching children about the importance of using condoms and getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, can keep them from making detrimental choices. Experts estimate that one person age 15 to 24 in the U.S. is infected with HIV every hour of every day. But while some developing countries such as Guatemala and Indonesia are taking important steps to improve their sex-education programs, our country keeps gutting them indiscriminately.
According to a new report from the Guttmacher Institute, only 22 states and the District of Columbia require that public schools teach sex education. Additionally, parents are allowed to opt their children out of sex education programs in 35 states and in D.C., while three states require parents to consent in order for their children to participate in such programs.
Funding towards teen pregnancy prevention programs also remains precarious. Recently, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate cut the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative, which supports organizations addressing rising teen pregnancy rates with evidence-based programs, by 80 percent. This is part of an overall trend against comprehensive sexuality education. More than $1.5 billion in state and federal funds have been designated for abstinence-only programs since 1998. Many school districts continue to teach these programs despite the countless studies that prove these programs do not deter youth from having sex. A 2004 review conducted by the reproductive and sex education nonprofit Advocates for Youth, for instance, found that “abstinence-only programs showed little evidence of sustained (long-term) impact on attitudes and intentions.” Meanwhile, when the Colorado Family Planning Initiative provided intrauterine devices (IUDs) to women throughout the state from 2009-2015, teen births dropped 40 percent.
To withhold critical, lifesaving medical information from young people is a violation of their human rights. Sexuality education should be mandatory, shame-free and medically accurate. No matter how much politicians, parents and educators wring their hands, adolescents will continue to have sex — and teaching them abstinence isn’t going to deter them from it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 44 percent of female teenagers and 47 percent of male teenagers between the ages of 15–19 have had sex. If legislators keep chipping away at sex education programs, adolescents will not be equipped to make the best choices for themselves.
It’s essential to give children age-appropriate information about their sexual development. There are so many things I wish I had learned about sex when I was a girl: what bodily changes to expect, the mechanics of sex, STD prevention, masturbation. Instead, my sex education was full of shame and double standards. At school, some teachers judged the girls who became pregnant. I once asked an administrator why there weren’t any programs to educate students about safe sex, and he replied that it wasn’t the school’s place, that it should be taught at home. Meanwhile, at home, I was taught that sex outside of marriage was immoral.
Because I was desperate for information, I would press my ear against my radio at night to listen to the call-in show “Loveline.” Teenagers would dial in to ask bizarre sex questions. It’s how I learned about STDs. But life would have been much easier to navigate had I had been guided by thorough and sex-positive information. Simply having access to books would have helped. But where was a Mexican girl in a working-class neighborhood going to find a copy of that classic, evidence-based text on sex and sexuality, “Our Bodies, Ourselves”?
Though I’m no longer the 15-year-old girl afraid of her own desire, it’s a shame that it took so many years of work to cultivate a healthy understanding of sexuality. I often think of the confused, young people out there who crave information and understanding right now. Who is going to help them navigate so many irrational and damaging messages?