Photo: Belmont High School
By Molly Hamilton
I attended Belmont Public Schools from Kindergarten until I graduated from Belmont High in 2019. Overall my experience within the Belmont school system was positive and effectively prepared me for college and many other aspects of post-graduation life.
However, there was one area where the curriculum fell short: sex education. In my four years at Belmont High, the only topics related to sex education that we covered were basic anatomy, STIs, pregnancy and abstinence. There was a brief discussion about contraception that centered around an oft-repeated phrase along the lines of, “abstinence is the only sure way to prevent pregnancy”.
While this statement may be true, a 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report indicated that approximately 55 percent of teens have had sexual intercourse by age 18. Why, when over half of teens are sexually active by the time they graduate high school, are we not providing a more comprehensive, realistic, and applicable sex education curriculum?
There are three main arguments for a more comprehensive sex education curriculum: sex-ed curriculum would help reduce the stigma around STIs and encourage more teens to get tested, and, finally, most sex-ed curricula do not cover vaginal health and thus set young women up to be misinformed about their own bodies.
Massachusetts’ current laws require an abstinence-focused approach to sex education in public schools (SIECUS) which was entirely in line with what I experienced in high school. While it is true that abstaining from sex is the only completely effective way to prevent pregnancy, I believe that telling young people to avoid a natural human behavior in order to avoid the risks that come with it is foolish and ineffective. Teens are no strangers to risk, and counting on them to avoid risky behaviors entirely is doomed to fail. Your teens years are inherently one of the most emotionally tumultuous, mistake-prone periods of your life, and it’s dangerous to forget that.
Furthermore, a 2017 study found that abstinence-focused sex-ed curricula “have little demonstrated efficacy in helping adolescents to delay intercourse.” Similarly, a study at the University of Washington concluded that, compared to teens who received no sex education, those who were taught an abstinence-focused curriculum were 30 percent less likely to experience unwanted pregnancy while those were taught a more comprehensive curriculum were 60 percent less likely. That alone proves that abstinence-focused sex-ed is not only ineffective at preventing pregnancy, but that a revised curriculum that covers more contraceptive options and risk-reducing behaviors could be significantly more effective. If it’s the aim of Belmont High to reduce teen pregnancy rates, then a comprehensive curriculum is the best way to accomplish that.
However, pregnancy is not the only risk factor when it comes to sexual activity. STIs are just as, if not more, prevalent. While I was taught the signs and symptoms of the most common STIs in high school, there was little information about how those STIs are treated. In health classes, the education we received about STIs felt more like a fear-mongering tactic than an actual informational session. We were required to do extensive research on the physical effects of STIs, the only facet of the issue that was thoroughly discussed.
I believe that the way STIs are discussed in health classes is only adding to the stigma around seeking treatment and getting tested. Young people are at a higher risk for contracting STIs, and lessening the stigma around them could lead to more teens getting tested. Regular STI testing is an important part of all around physical health and should be treated with the same neutrality as visiting a general practitioner, dentist, or optometrist.
Sexual health should not be presented as a shameful, scary topic, but should be presented as a neutral collection of facts and information. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Young people ages 15 to 24 represent 25 percent of the sexually active population, but acquire half of all new STIs, or about 10 million new cases a year.” Such a startling statistic should be more than enough evidence to indicate that more comprehensive sex education curricula is not just an issue for teens and their parents, but a wide-reaching public health issue that we should all have a stake in.
While pregnancy and STIs are undoubtedly the main concerns surrounding adolescent sexual activity, there are many other topics under the umbrella of sexual health that should be covered. In school I was never taught about UTIs, yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, or any other vaginal health concerns. While they may not carry the same frightening connotation as STIs, all of those conditions can lead to severe complications if left untreated. For example, an untreated UTI can lead to a life-threatening kidney infection and untreated bacterial vaginosis can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, a condition which increases a woman’s infertility risk. Teen girls are not taught the early warning signs of these conditions, how to prevent them, or the urgency with which they need to be treated. Adding such topics to the curriculum would also help combat the strong cultural stigma around vaginal health, possibly helping female students feel more comfortable seeking treatment. Most women will experience one or more of these issues in their lifetime, and we’re doing them a disservice by completely omitting gynecological issues from sex education curricula.
While the Belmont Public school system does an excellent job preparing students for life after graduation, this issue represents a significant hole in its high school curriculum. Many young people, especially young women, do not receive educational information about sex, gender, and their own bodies outside of school.
As an educational institution meant to serve and uplift young adults, Belmont High School should revise their sex education curriculum to include a broader range of topics in a less abstinence-focused manner. The disadvantages of abstinence-focused sex-ed are backed by numerous studies, and the advantages of a more comprehensive curriculum are innumerable.
This is not just an issue on an individual level, but a serious public health concern that, if remedied, would benefit the entire community.
Hamilton is a 2019 graduate from Belmont High School and is currently attending college