Sex can be a difficult and awkward thing to discuss. Especially with your children! Numerous studies have shown, however, that teens who receive comprehensive sexual education are less likely to become unintentionally pregnant and to contract sexually transmitted diseases or infections. The question is, who should that education come from? What are we doing here in Carbon County to address this issue and keep our kids healthy and safe?
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that teens who go through a comprehensive sexual education program are 51 percent less likely to become unintentionally pregnant or to contract sexually transmitted diseases or infections (when compared to students who were taught an abstinence-only curriculum). Yes, 51 percent! So what, exactly, does a comprehensive education in sex involve? An effective program is defined as one that addresses all of the various issues surrounding sexual activity: the psychological effects, pregnancy, STDs, and other health concerns. Students need to know not only the risks, but most importantly, how to prevent them. And they need to be aware of what to do if a concern does arise.
Before we go any further, I would like to address the main concern of many parents with a school sexual education program: that teaching kids about sex too young will encourage them to start having it. Study after study has shown that it actually has the opposite effects, if any at all, on the age of first sexual activity and number of different partners. Teens who understand the risks, and how to prevent them, are less likely to have unprotected sex, or to engage in sex with numerous partners. They are also, according to some studies, more likely to wait until an older age before engaging in first sexual activity.
So what are our students learning here? I interviewed a number of students from Red Lodge High school and here’s what I learned: to begin with, the only sexual education class that they attend is in eighth grade. The boys and girls are taught separately, and the curriculum involves abstinence, how to say no, STDs and their prevention, and birth control. And then they are sent on their way. That sounds like a fairly informative class, but there are some large holes there.
While the students are taught about the necessity of birth control and STD prevention, they are not given resources and information about where to obtain them. Of the students I talked to, 80% said that if they had questions about obtaining birth control or STD testing, and were not comfortable talking to their parents about it, they wouldn’t know where to go for answers. Would you want to walk into the grocery store or pharmacy where your aunt or your dad’s best friend works and buy condoms? Probably not! Would you want to explain to your parents that you might have an STD and need to make an appointment with the family doctor? Yikes! Some of us are comfortable enough to have an open dialogue with our parents, but many are not. Of the students that I talked to, all but one agreed that the sexual education program in Red Lodge is lacking. They felt that another class, some time in high school, would be beneficial. A class that covers not only WHAT precautions should be taken, but HOW to obtain them, what to do if you’re concerned that you might have an STD or if you need a pregnancy test, and some more practical and useful information. What we’re doing now is essentially telling our teens the importance of eating lunch, but not giving them directions to the cafeteria.
Of the ten students interviewed, only one felt that the sexual education program in Red Lodge is adequate. They all agreed that while they leaned about the necessity of STD and pregnancy prevention, they were given no information about where to actually get those things, nor where to turn for help in the event of needing any kind of testing. When asked about being given tools or resources for acquiring help, one former student said, “They never did. They didn’t give out condoms or tell anyone where to get birth control or tests for pregnancy. It was more all about the consequences and just not doing it… so I guess they just didn’t bother.” When asked if an additional class, maybe at a later age, which actually provides information on obtaining birth control and testing would be helpful, he said, “Absolutely. I know a lot of kids during that time are really interested in sex, but are embarrassed to go and buy condoms, so handing out some free ones wouldn’t hurt either! They are going to [have sex] if told to or not, might as well make sure they have the proper protection! And also showing them there is such a thing as Planned Parenthood. [I] didn’t even know about that until I saw it on the news some years later.” Another student told us, “I think it would have been helpful if we learned more about it in high school as well as eighth grade. It would have also been nice if we had been given resources for more information or to ask questions that we didn’t feel comfortable asking in class.”
We do have a fantastic Public Health Nurse here in Carbon County, Roberta Cady, who is doing her best to spread information and resources. At her office there are pamphlets available with information about all of the issues relating to sexual activity, and there are free condoms right outside the door, which are available to anyone. (Free condoms are also available at Bone Daddy’s Custom Cycles!) If a person has specific questions, she is available for one-on-one counseling, and will do her best to provide everything necessary to help. Roberta’s office is in the county annex building, located at 206 North Broadway. Unfortunately, there are no actual medical services available there. While she is able to provide information about STDs and pregnancy, she can’t actually administer tests or supply medications. For that, you would need an appointment at the clinic or to go to either Cody or Billings to one of the women’s or sexual health clinics there, at little or no cost.
Our public health nurse has informed me that there are many programs she is working to bring to Red Lodge. For example, there is an automated machine that can take a urine sample and test for many STDs, as well as pregnancy, in just a few minutes, and at very low cost. Hopefully we will see that addition soon. Another issue is that of the limitations of nurses by law. There is currently a standing order from Dr. George (our County Public Health Director) allowing the public health nurse to administer vaccinations. Could we obtain such an order to allow for STD and pregnancy testing, or to prescribe associated prescriptions? Having a lower-cost option for maintaining sexual health would surely be a benefit to the entire county!
As a parent, the responsibility to teach your children is ultimately yours. Teaching them about their bodies, how to respect them, and how to protect them is an individual family decision. Nationally 90 percent of parents agree that sexual education should be a part of the public school system. The honest-to-goodness bottom line is that some teens will never get these lessons from their parents. Should those kids be left to make ill-informed decisions which could have major impacts on their health and their lives as a whole? I sincerely hope that every teen has at least one trusted adult that they can go to with questions and concerns, but let’s try to make SURE that they do. How can we fill these gaps in the sexual education program and make sure that all of our teens stay happy, healthy, and knowledgeable?
Unfortunately, as school is out for the summer, I was unable to get specific information from the school nurse or any other staff. Please watch for an update within the next couple of months.