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US Sex Education Debate: The Students

  • Alena Michailova

Teen sex. Babies having babies. Sexually transmitted infections. Abstinence or comprehensive sex education. Big decisions and choices on the part of young people. Sex ed could aid in that decision. However, Sex ed is one of the most controversial issues in America's public schools and in many American families. More on this story from VOA's Alena Michailova.

In a forum to discuss sex education in US schools, some young people commented:

Vanessa Geffrard, University Of Maryland: "Sex is something private, something great between people."

Benjamin Barrows, Bowie High School: "Sexuality is a part of our being."

Nikki Babayeva, University Of Maryland: "A comprehensive sex education program will include both parts: abstinence and contraception."

Gyawu Mahama, George Washington University: "Adults in general just ignore the issue."

Ariana Mclean, Tufts University: "Everyone has their own opinion."

These five students are all active in Advocates for Youth, an action group that supports comprehensive sex education. Comprehensive sex education includes a discussion about the benefits of abstinence but places an even stronger emphasis on contraception, the use of contraceptive devices, alternate lifestyle, HIV / AIDS, and the emotional or psychological issues connected with teenage sex. Abstinence-only is the other sex-ed curriculum taught in many schools.

In the past decade the U.S. government has allocated almost $1.3 billion dollars for sex-ed, mandating a greater emphasis on the Abstinence-only program. 17 states have refused the U-S government money because of curriculum restrictions.

James Wagoner, President of Advocates for Youth, believes it is all driven by policy and politics. “Politics and ideology. What is more attractive to a politician? A simplistic solution to a complex problem. So, they can go out and say 'I'm a moral guy. I support abstinence-only," Wagoner said.

In the U.S. parents can choose not to have their children take sex-ed classes they disapprove of----for example: some parents are not in favor of having their children participate in discussions dealing with all the controversial issues including homosexuality and alternate lifestyles.

Here is how our student participants feel about the curriculum…and there is no harsh condemnation by the students on the merits of abstinence-only or a comprehensive program.

Moderator Questions Students:

How many of you know someone who had sex while in high school?

How many of you know someone who had an STI or sexually transmitted infection?

How many of you know someone who was pregnant in high school?

Meet Benjamin Barrows of Bowie, Maryland, High School; Nickie Babayeva, University of Maryland; Gyawu Mahama of George Washington University; Vanessa Geffrard of the University of Maryland; and, Ariana McLean of Tufts (University).

Reporter: What do you think of sex education? Do high schooled (youth) really need it?

Gyawu Mahama, George Washington University: "They're getting to that age where their bodies are changing and they are becoming more and more interested in the opposite sex, or the same sex as the case may be. And a lot of them aren't prepared."

Nikki Babayeva, University of Maryland: "Abstinence is the best way to protect yourself. Of course, if you don't want to get something, don't do it. But at the same time, if you chose to do something than there's also contraception, there's also plenty of other choices. Young people deserve to have all the necessary information to make responsible decisions."

Benjamin Barrows, Bowie High School: "Statistics show that student won't remain abstinent just because you're telling them: be abstinent."

Reporter: Statistics show that 90 percent of people who take the pledge of abstinence break it. Why do you think that is?

Vanessa Geffrard, University of Maryland: "If you are in a room with 30 people who are signing it and you're the one that's not signing it, what is that saying about you?"

Reporter: What questions would you like to have had answered when you had sex education?

Nikki Babayeva, University of Maryland: "At times I felt like my teacher felt awkward talking to us about it. And he had a family, he had a little child. So it was something that definitely was a big part of his life. And he felt out of place talking to us about it."

Ariana Mclean, Tufts University: "A good thing to include but also a very hard thing to include would be about relationships and sexuality and the emotional part of it, so it's more not like the forbidden fruit."

Gyawu Mahama, George Washington University: "We're gonna be parents one day and because we are in the International Youth Council and Advocates for Youth, we're gonna know how to talk to our kids about sex. But a lot of parents just ignore it and we can't expect the media to be our teacher."

Vanessa Geffrard, University of Maryland: "A lot of children are leaning about sex from the media and that's not a healthy way of looking at sex. Realistically when you see a woman with big breasts on TV and you see the bathing suit, that's what people classify as sex, and sex sells. That's not a healthy portrayal that you should be showing to children about sex."

Nikki Babayeva, University of Maryland: "Show young people that it's okay to talk about it, it's okay to have a casual conversation about it, which means that these conversations will be taken out of the school grounds and to gathering of friends. It's just not going to be a taboo topic. It's not going to be: "Oh, you said 'sex', ha-ha!" It's going to be a normal part of our lives like it already is. We just need to talk about it."

Eleven percent of all U.S. births are to teens. Even with a drop in teenage pregnancy, the U.S. and the Russian Federation, by far, lead the developed world. And, there is a health crisis in sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers, so says Heather Boonstra of the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank devoted to the advancement of sexual and reproductive health worldwide.

Heather Boonstra, Guttmacher Institute: "STD'S are a prevalent problem in this country. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a report that one in four teens have a sexually transmitted infection. These are wide-ranging infections, some are, really, some would not even notice if they had it, but on the other hand, these can be quite serious."

Whose fault is it? The media, politicians, parents, society, religious institutions?

Michelle Turner, Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum: "Look at programs that kids are exposed to on TV, sex seems to have infiltrated everything across the media."

James Wagoner, Advocates for Youth: "There are a lot of ways you involve young people in the process. It starts with a philosophy within the society, within the government, and the organizations involved in this shift. That is young people are not the problem, I can't repeat that enough."

Shelby Knox of Lubbock, Texas, a spokesperson for Advocates for Youth, was raised in a very conservative, religious home. "I think as a country we have to change our cultural perspective on sex before we can really start to get to the root of this problem,” Knox said. “We have some very puritanical, some very conservative views on it. And, while I can respect those, because I was raised in those, eventually we have to start looking at this as a public health issue and realize our silence and our secrecy is not doing anyone any favors.”

Sex education and teenage health and well-being are ongoing issues in the United States and around the world. Let us know what is happening in your country.

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