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Sex Ed in the South: You Gotta Put a Ring on It

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

By Arianna Villanueva

Southern States aren’t on the same page when it comes to consent, HIV, and inclusivity

Our southern states are famous for a lot of things: soul food, churches, the civil rights movement, college football...the list goes on! Yet the south is also known for something else: having some of the worst sexual health education administered in the United States. Friends and bloggers alike report receiving abstinence-only (no sex til’ there’s a ring!) sex ed that spewed unforgettable fear about STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections).

The sex education I received was a hot mess. It was taught by a physical education teacher who looked clearly uncomfortable from the start. Our sixth grade class stared wide-eyed at the images of STDS and scientific diagrams of penises and vulvas. For some, this is the first time seeing genitals depicted in such a way. Such a way that provoked questions and thoughts, but no one asked. This pattern translated into high school’s health class.

The taboo-ness of discussing sex in the United States was a hurdle in the classroom. My teacher demonstrating how to put a condom on a banana was such an ordeal, that she finished as quickly as she could--red-faced and sweating. No discussion on consent. No talk on gender identity or sexual orientation. No questions answered. Throughout secondary school, there was a complete and unrealistic emphasis on abstinence. As several students became pregnant and others continued to venture into sexual behavior blindly, it became clear to me we were not taught the right sex ed.

No discussion on consent. No talk on gender identity or sexual orientation. No questions answered.

My colleagues, friends, and online communities from around the South all experienced similar sex-ed stories. No one felt prepared or informed, often feeling blindsided by real sexual experiences. What is the South missing here? Let us delve into what constitutes our United States sex education.

ON A National SCALE

The issue begins federally. “Only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education,” says Planned Parenthood, “and even in those states there’s no guarantee that the sex education provided is of high quality, or covers the topics young people need to learn about to stay healthy.” Only 34 states require HIV education for their students. The numbers only get worse.

2,295,739 - the number of total STD cases in the United States in 2017, an all-record high.

13 -

the number of states that require their sex ed to be MEDICALLY ACCURATE.Yes, you heard that right. Less than a quarter of the U.S. requires medical info to be medically accurate. All but two of those states are far from the south. Y’all! West Virginia and North Carolina are the only southern states with “adequate” standards.

11 -

Out of the 12 southern states stress abstinence.

7 -

Number of states that have anti-LGBTQA laws in place for their public schools. Some of those states include Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana.

5 -

The number of southern states that include information on contraception.

0 -

Number of southern states that teach about sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.

Exceptions to the Rule?

Don’t give up on our southern neighbors just yet. Let us revisit West Virginia. It is one of the only southern states to require teachings on consent and health relationships; West Virginia leads the South in sex ed without a doubt. They are said to have extremely clear guidelines set in place for all of their schools. You’re thinking, well this is good! Why aren’t the rest of the states following suit?

There are several misconceptions floating around ruining it for the rest of us. Like…

“If we teach kids more about sex, they are going to have more sex”

“Teaching kids about gay sex will turn them gay”

“I don’t want my kid hearing about sexual assault. It’s not age appropriate”

“I teach my kid better than any teacher could about the birds and the bees”

“Abstinence is all kids should hear to avoid STDs and assault”

“My kids already know about consent. I taught them.”

“Too much sex talk is pornographic”

Far from the east coast, California has one of the best sex education curriculum and laws in place for their students. The California Healthy Youth Act requires all school districts to teach students comprehensive sex education that is “medically accurate, inclusive, and unbiased.”

We want sex ed that is “medically accurate, inclusive, and unbiased.”

In “Standard 2: Analyzing Influences” section of the CA Dept. of Education content standards, teachers are required to evaluate how sexual orientation, sexuality and gender roles affect student self perception. Requirements like these are some of the closest inclusive curriculum queer students will see at school. At this point, it is up to the instructor to show cultural competence towards all students (of varying identities).

Adults want sex-ed

That’s great for Cali, but it's showtime for the South. Our Ovee Team took a trip down to Texas for SXSW Conference 2019 and asked a few Texans about their sex education experiences:

“I wish I would have something like this when I was younger. I had to fend for myself,” said a woman at the conference. Another woman who is in the adult film industry explained, “I gave my daughter and all of her friends a private sex ed because I KNOW she’s not getting it at school. She might have been embarrassed but all of her friends’ parents thanked me afterwards.”

These women made it clear that they had to use outside information and their own experiences as sex education. As Texan women, they did not have a secure sexual health education like several other states provide. Texas and 6 other states not only leave out vital information, they have laws that go the extra mile on excluding topics in their sex ed.

"No Promo Homo"

In addition to refusing to provide adequate education for cis, heterosexual students, “No promo homo” laws block states from teaching any lgbtqa+ sexual health and allow schools to legally discriminate gay students. It is in the Alabama State Code of Laws regarding health education for K-12 schools that, “Classes must emphasize, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” Alabama State Code § 16-40A-2(c)(8).

Several more states have similar discriminatory laws that affect LGBTQA+ students in such a way. In a legal respect, most schools in the States have no obligation to teach about queer health in relationships. “They are an attempt to, at best ignore, and at worst to completely stigmatize young people who identify as LGBTQ,” says Debra Hauser of Advocates for Youth.

My LGBTQA+ friends made it clear that the sex ed they received was not inclusive for them. Several friends received their sex education through online resources or by word of mouth.

What can we do when sex ed fails us?

LGBTQA+ along with hetero and cis individuals are finding out more about themselves and their health needs through these underground outlets. However, more and more people are going to their healthcare providers.

Providers, like our medical advisor April Autry, are working towards patient relationships “in which the provider facilitates patient comfort and decision making, empowering them at every possible point.” When a patient feels comfortable they are more likely to ask and answer questions honestly surrounding sex, STI’s, emotional health, and relationships.

We’ve asked a nurse practitioner at the University of Alabama at Birmingham on what their experience is with their patients’ increasing curiosities on staying healthy.

What are the most frequently asked questions students or young adults have about sex or sexual health?

NP:I am frequently asked if sexually transmitted infections will always show signs or symptoms when they are present. I also get asked about transmission of STIs, they assume transmission should be 100%, which is untrue. Also, if a partner has symptoms, why don't I- or vice versa. My students are also frequently concerned about cost or testing going on their parent's insurance.”

What are some common misconceptions you see your patients believing before addressing them with you within sexual health?

NP: Hmm.. This can kind of be all over the place. I spend a lot of time working on misconceptions...Sometimes we have to start with: STIs can be present without symptoms. Condom use is important and is helpful at reducing STI transmission, but is not 100%. Transmission of bacteria can happen before ejaculation occurs. Sometimes we discuss consent and how this is actually a thing, condom use is also a part of consent. Herpes is often asymptomatic and can still transmit to partners.”

What do you want to see changed in sex education in the south? What is an important missing factor?

NP: “I think a pro-active approach, discussing birth control options, condom use, consent process would be helpful. My patients have typically been sexually active for years, with minimal information about maintaining sexual health. They frequently are trying to get testing or birth control without using their parent's insurance because they feel uncomfortable discussing their sexual health with guardians. This greatly reduces our options for treatment and testing and also sets up a retroactive approach to sexual health (a sort of panicking after the fact instead of being prepared going into an event). I believe normalizing sexual health as a part of overall health would be beneficial. We start discussing drug use and staying "drug free" with our kids in grade school, but we only give them minimal sexual health information when they reach high school.”

Something's got to give

The general consensus amongst many young southerners and medical professionals is that the bar of sex education is not high enough by several standards. Some states do not require sex ed. The ones that do, are not teaching the fundamentals to keep populations healthy. Medical accuracy is proven to be important to keep the spread of STIs; education laws in southern states do not reflect that understanding.

But we have hope! There are hundreds of local, regional, and national organizations that are working to improve sexual health starting in public education. Check out your local organizations for ways to advocate for better sex education.


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Arianna Villanueva is an outspoken advocate for sexual health in her community and current student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.


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