SEX EDUCATION is a right and a means of empowerment. At least, that’s the opinion of Maggie Gustafson, Adolescent Health Program Manager of The Louisiana Public Health Institute (LPHI), an organization that aims to champion individual and community health for the people of Louisiana.
While the state of Louisiana is one of twenty-six states that does not mandate sex education and highly regulates sex education when schools elect to teach it, it has the sixth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation and the nation’s highest rate of reported syphilis. The rate of diagnoses of HIV infection in Louisiana adolescents aged 13–19 is almost three times the national average. But as stark as these statistics are, they are not the only reason Gustafson supports sex education. First and foremost, she believes sex education is “A right of young people and all people to know how their own reproductive health impacts their life.”
Two of these young people are Ashleigh Nave, a recent graduate of Pearl River High–a co-ed public school in Pearl River, Louisiana–and a student at Tulane University, and Chase LaRocca–a recent graduate of Jesuit High School, a Catholic all-boys school in New Orleans, Louisiana and a student at Tulane University. While Nave says her sex education was biology-focused, LaRocca says his sex education was taught in conjunction with Religion class. Louisiana law requires that sex education must be presented in the context of another, already taught, subject, such as “Biology, science, physical hygiene, or physical education.”
Nave’s school taught sex education in ninth or tenth grade during biology class. Since it was biology-focused, it concentrated on the anatomy involved in sex, leaving little room for the social aspects. “We would color-code the reproductive system, and then my teacher would do a lecture on, basically, abstinence. It had very little about methods besides abstinence. I really don’t remember anything except her telling me, ‘Please, don’t get pregnant,’ and that was it. It was very, very brief.” And the brevity of her sex education left noticeable gaps: “Obviously, there was absolutely no talk about same-sex intercourse and ways to protect yourself that way.” Though protection was mentioned, “We weren’t given any resources like ‘You can get condoms here. You can get a plan B here.’” The lack of resources given on same-sex intercourse and contraception were not just oversights, but legally-mandated lapses in education. Schools in Louisiana are not allowed to mention same-sex intercourse or relationships or provide contraceptives.
LaRocca’s high school taught sex education in all of 8th grade, then for a week every year thereafter, “In 8th-grade, it was a priest and the other years it was just normal people who had theology degrees. One of them [Timmy Mc- Caffrey, director of the Archdiocese’s Catholic Youth and Young Adult Ministry Office] runs the anti-pornography initiative of the Arch-diocese of New Orleans.” The religion-based education LaRocca received was not called sex education, however, but “Christian Family Planning.” Though Christian Family Planning mentioned several contraceptives, like Nave’s school “They didn’t tell you how you could get those things,” as well as discouraging the use of any contraception other than the rhythm method; “The best outcome for them was if you didn’t use contraceptive and you just like waited and knew when your partner was fertile and then you could have sex at that time to have a child and then just have sex other times. Not using contraceptives and just hoping, I guess. Trying to time it out and hoping that you don’t mess it up.” There also was no mention of STIs or same-sex relationships.
Gustafson, along with LPHI, supports Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) in all schools, a stark contrast to the education currently provided by Louisiana schools. She describes CSE in a truly comprehensive fashion, “All-encompassing education of how you learn about yourself and your sexuality and how you interact with other people and develop healthy relationships. It includes […]the typical things you might think of when you think of sex education, like puberty and anatomy and things like contraception and learning about STIs, but it also goes beyond just those basics to include information on healthy relationships and things like mental health and how that may impact your sexual behavior and can include dating violence awareness and things like peer pressure and self-image. It helps a person develop themselves into a person that has healthy relationships with others.”
Gustafson believes that sex education is, essentially, life education that we should start as early and inclusively as possible, because “Sex education programs can be harmful if they are not inclusive of gender identity and sexual identity.” Currently, sex education cannot legally be taught in schools in grades K-6, except in Orleans Parish, where sex education may start in grade three. But Gustafson says that “There are pretty much only pros to having it be taught earlier[…] I would support sex education being taught in kindergarten.” Though this sentiment may seem extreme, Gustafson insists that it isn’t. In her view, “Sex education is teaching young people to learn about their bodies and how they should interact with other people.” She says she especially supports early sex education, because she and LPHI support parental opt-out policies, because “In the end, I support autonomy. I also support parents being able to learn about the curriculum.”
She believes the purpose of sex education should be to protect children by arming them with knowledge, “A lot of parents have misconceptions about what sex education really looks like in younger grades. I think it puts a lot of protective factors in place for younger kids.[…] In 3rd grade you could start learning what consent is, like how it’s okay to be touched.” And while many opponents of 2018 House Bill 499, which would have mandated sex education in Louisiana Public Schools, believed that sexual education should be left to the parents, Louisiana State Representative Walt Leger disagrees. He cited his past as a prosecutor who had previously prosecuted sexual abusers of children, often who were abused themselves and often by a parent or by a guardian, asking what “We expect to happen to those children who are being sexually abused if we rely entirely on their sexual abuser to teach them about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate?”
Nave did have access to highly accurate sex education, but only because her mother is a biology teacher. “I remember she sat me down and told me about the whole menstrual cycle. […]She taught me about actual sex and not just reproductive organs.” But not every adolescent can access reliable sex education outside of school, including Chase LaRocca, who says his “Main source of information was probably friends and the internet.” Nave expressed concern that most of her friends learned about sex from friends and the internet, saying that was “A good way to get a more pornographical view of sex without an understanding of what’s actually going on.” And this spotty record on sex education affects adolescents’ lives in big ways. LaRocca says that “There was a solid learning curve whenever I got into my first relationship. […] The lack of sex education made any first education terrifying…like terrifying beyond a healthy level.”
The CDC administers a yearly health survey to students across the nation, asking students, among other things, whether or not they engage in risk behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and sexual behaviors. Over forty states include the whole survey, but Louisiana schools (and all other researchers, public and private) are prohibited by law to survey students about personal or family practices and beliefs surrounding sex, including sexual assault. Louisiana schools consequently administer the survey without the questions regarding sexual behaviors, so we know little about the beliefs and practices of Louisiana High Schoolers and how they would like or would have liked sexual education to be presented. But in a conversation with potential to impact their lives and those of their peers, students should be part of the conversation.
In addition, Gustafson says the lack of information serves as a major barrier to implementing CSE, because “We will never know if our programs are working and it affects how we can get funding, but I think we know enough from schools outside Louisiana that they are effective.” One of the main arguments against the implementation of the sexual health survey is that of Kathleen Benfield, legislative director with the Louisiana Family Forum, whom the Gambit quoted as saying, “These are innocence-destroying questions.” Another main argument in opposition is that if children or adolescents are exposed to questions about sex, they will engage in the activities mentioned. However, Dr. Julie Finger, a New Orleans pediatrician, argued during a Louisiana State House of Representatives Education Committee meeting concerning 2018 House Bill 499 that it is illogical to believe that this reasoning would apply only to sexual activity: “We ask people about tobacco because the only way we can help them stop smoking tobacco is if we know they’re doing it. Asking them whether they smoke isn’t going to make them go out and buy a cigarette.”
UNESCO’s 2018 updated International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education recommends that CSE be adopted throughout the world, emphasizing that “Sexuality education has positive effects, including increasing young people’s knowledge and improving their attitudes related to sexual and reproductive health and behaviors.” In 2016, LPHI partnered with the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies to form the Geaux Talk campaign, which surveyed a representative sample of 600 Louisiana parents and caregivers about they believe sex education is and should be implemented in Louisiana schools. The Geaux Talk campaign found, among other things, that 74% of surveyed parents believe that sex education should be required in schools. So why is CSE so difficult to implement in schools? Despite multiple attempts to instate the full survey, however, lawmakers and organizations such as the Louisiana Family Forum continue to push back. And despite the overwhelming support by the Louisiana parents surveyed by Geaux Talk, regardless of religious or political affiliation, Gustafson says that she sees “A disconnect between what parents think and what schools think parents think [and] a larger disconnect when you come to the State level and you’re talking policy and policymakers.”
However, she says that the best way to progress CSE in Louisiana is to “talk to your lawmakers.” Because, frankly, a huge issue in an attempt to implement Comprehensive Sex Education for children seems to be the lack of sexual knowledge and education among Louisiana adults, lawmakers and private citizens alike. Gustafson says the most dangerous myth surrounding CSE is that learning how sex can be safer will make children and adolescents more likely to have sex. But UNESCO shows, that not only are abstinence-only programs ineffective in delaying sexual activity in children, programs that combine sex education and abstinence are effective in doing this. One parent said in the Education Committee meeting concerning 2018 House Bill 499, CSE “Will increase teenage pregnancy, by talking about contraceptives […] they don’t tell you contraceptives have a 25% failure rate. So if you start using contraceptives and you weren’t sexually active before, now you have a larger population of children with a 25% failure rate, more abortions, more single mothers.” This statement assumes, incorrectly, both that CSE causes an earlier initiation of sexual activities and that “contraceptives” are one homogenous group with the same failure rate. In reality, contraceptive methods like the IUD or hormonal implant have a 0.1% failure rate. In a Gambit article, State Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield is quoted as saying that Louisiana’s high rates of adolescent STIs and pregnancies reflect a “social and moral and spiritual problem” rather than a public health one. The amount of misinformation regarding sex amongst Louisiana adults seems to be a cycle, which poses a much more uncomfortable and more difficult question in the pursuit of educating children about sex and about their own bodies: do we first need to edu- cate the State’s adults?