California is a leader in sex education in the U.S., yet even our progressive curriculum falls short of comprehensive. While California is one of only three states that requires sex ed programs present abortion as an option for navigating unplanned pregnancy, the implementation of this forward-thinking curriculum continues to face resistance. Here in the East Bay, several school districts in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties have received backlash from parents for adhering to the recently passed California Healthy Youth Act. Critics claim the newly mandated sex education programs sexualize children by exposing them to information about sex, STIs and HIV beginning in fourth grade. In Fremont Unified School District, the debate became so heated that sex ed for fourth through sixth graders was abolished altogether, due to both sides being unable to reach a consensus over what material was appropriate to include in the program. Those in support of this new program emphasize that earlier sex education can influence a more responsible attitude about sex later on, as well as decrease sexual activity among youth.
I believe that while the opponents to this new program are missing the point, California’s newly rolled out sex ed program does have its flaws. The social, cultural, political and ethical implications of sex are just as significant as the biology of reproduction and necessary for students to understand in order to properly utilize the material being taught in their sex ed programs. To provide comprehensive sex education, the curriculum must include both the biology behind reproduction as well as the sociocultural and political aspects of it, and it should utilize a reproductive justice framework in order to encompass all of the varying experiences associated with reproduction and sex in our society. Many sex ed programs in California and the U.S. as a whole tend to skew one way or another, providing only the science behind reproduction or just reinforcing the social stigma around sex by encouraging an abstinence-only mindset. Even the programs that do discuss both the biological and social aspects of reproduction often fail to give students the tools needed to deal with the realities of sex and its social, cultural, political and ethical implications in their daily lives as teenagers and young adults.
For those unaware of the abysmal state of sex education in the United States: while 34 states and the District of Columbia mandate HIV sex education, only 13 states require that the information provided be medically accurate, and just two states restrict the promotion of religion in these programs. In California, sex education was optional and allowed states to “pick and choose” material until the California Healthy Youth Act went into effect in January 2016. Additionally, according to a national survey in 2013, “less than five percent of LGBTQ-identifying students aged 13-21 reported that their health classes had included positive representations of LGBT-related topics.” There should not be discrepancies this large in the provision of vital information for young people’s health and well-being.
In my experience as both a student and a teacher of sex education, I’ve found that utilizing a scientific understanding of reproduction can work to combat stigma, as well as dispel myths and taboos related to sexual and reproductive health services. This includes providing medically accurate and LGBTQ-inclusive information about safe sex practices, how to prevent pregnancy and options for unplanned pregnancy including abortion. I teach a DeCal called Reproduction in Modern Society, in which students gain a basic understanding of the anatomical and physiological components of reproduction as well as the social aspects such as gender identity, sexuality and consent. Once we establish the basic foundations of sex and reproduction early in the semester, the class moves on to more in-depth topics such as disparities in access to reproductive healthcare, reproduction and abortion in the media, legal aspects of assisted reproductive technologies and the history of forced sterilization & eugenics in the U.S.
When discussing controversial issues such as assisted reproductive technologies, birth control access and abortion, the students utilize their scientifically correct and medically accurate understanding of reproduction in order to defend their opinions. For example, during our class on reproduction and abortion in the media, the students view several videos of anti-abortion arguments, then write letters to the individuals perpetrating extreme rhetoric on this topic (such as showing graphic and adulterated photos of fetuses), urging them to reconsider their wording and explaining why their medically inaccurate anti-abortion arguments are so harmful. Providing students with scientific grounds on which to base their arguments on controversial reproductive health issues allows them to remove emotion from the conversation and utilize facts.
Beyond gaining a scientific understanding of sex, it is essential that students also learn about the social, cultural, political and ethical implications of reproduction, and in particular, the populations which are most vulnerable to disparities in the system. In order to do this, a reproductive justice framework must be implemented in the curriculum. As defined by Loretta Ross of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective in 1994, reproductive justice is “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social and economic well-being of women and girls” and has since been expanded to include the protection of trans- and gender-nonconforming individuals’ rights and livelihood, with an emphasis on communities of color. The main tenets of reproductive justice include the right to have a child, the right to not have a child and the right to parent the children we have in the necessary enabling conditions. Employing a reproductive justice lens to the topics of sex education works to combat the cis and heteronormative language often used in this context. In addition, using a reproductive justice lens acknowledges the experiences of those most at risk of issues that perpetuate cycles of violence, such as lack of access to healthcare and lack of sexual health education.
The combined effect of layering these distinct approaches to sex education results in students coming away from their sex education programs with a deeper understanding of not only the anatomical and physiological side of reproduction, but also the social, political and ethical conversations around sex in our society and their implications in different communities. By utilizing this truly comprehensive curriculum, California high school and middle schools can give students at an early age the tools to reduce stigma and educate their peers about issues that often get intertwined with emotion and politics — East Bay school districts should be leaders in this.
Beethoven Gerber is the co-facilitator of the Reproduction in Modern Society DeCal and a junior at UC Berkeley.
A previous version of the illustration credit accompanying this op-ed incorrectly stated that an illustration by Ameena Golding was a staff illustration. In fact, it should have been credited as a file illustration.