For Maddie, a Palo Alto High School junior whose name, like all other teen sources in this story, has been changed to protect her identity, having sex for the first time was an emotional experience. The act itself made her feel vulnerable, as did the fact that her relationship ended soon after.
“[It affected me] in a negative way because people just saw me as easy,” Maddie says. “I became more vulnerable and I started to be very self-conscious about this thing [having sex]. It wasn’t a good situation.”
Even though she had already taken Living Skills, Paly’s health course, and felt prepared physically for how to protect herself, she was unprepared for the emotional and social effects.
“I think that when it [sex] is discussed in Living Skills, they only talk about the physical action,” Maddie says. “They never talk about the emotional toll that it truly takes on you.”
In order to combat countless situations involving inadequate sexual education, like Maddie’s and many other teens, Assemblymember Shirley Weber from San Diego’s district introduced Assembly Bill 329, or the California Healthy Youth Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last week on Oct 1. The act attempts to strengthen and diversify the sexual education requirements in public schools, which she says have not been updated since 1992. It will make comprehensive sexual education mandatory for all schools, in addition to updating instruction surrounding the discussion of HIV and AIDS, as well as mandating education on different sexualities and gender identities.
The act was signed along with a related bill, Senate Bill 695, which mandates the teaching of “yes means yes” affirmative consent along with more education on sexual harassment, assault and violence. In a new age of Internet dating and more open discussions about gender and sexuality, students nationwide find that sex ed has not kept up with current trends in teenage sexual relations and does not address new dangers that teens may be exposed to. At Paly, 42.2 percent of students felt they received an adequate sex education, while 34.3 percent did not feel Living Skills met their needs, according to a survey conducted by Verde.
“They never talk about the emotional toll that it truly takes on you.” -Maddie, a Paly junior
Living Skills falls under the California Educational Code Section 15933, which states that schools are not required to teach comprehensive sex education, but mandates that grades seven through 12 must at least teach about abstinence, sexually transmitted diseases, contraceptives, different sexualities, and the Safely Surrendered Baby Law, a California law allowing parents to surrender newborn babies.
Beyond that, local districts and school boards determine the curriculum. In the Palo Alto Unified School District, individual teachers are free to choose their own curriculum, as long as it abides by state and federal standards.
Incorporating the emotional
The struggle that educators face in regard to sex education, and that the new law would attempt to combat, is ensuring that the ideas taught in the classroom are translated to real-life sexual experiences.
Chris, a junior, feels that Paly’s source of sexual education, the Living Skills course, doesn’t focus enough on the emotional aspects.
“It [Living Skills] only covers how to be safe, which we’ve all had drilled into our heads, and doesn’t seem to mention expressing yourself sexually in a healthy manner,” Chris says. “Healthy in that context would be knowing what you are comfortable with. It’s knowing what your limits are and not letting people try to push you out of them without your consent.”
Jake, a senior, agrees that the physical aspects of sexual education can only teach one so much about what to do in sexual situations. Although Jake learned about how certain combinations of lube and condoms can render each other useless, he still forgot to practice safe sex when he got caught in the heat of the moment during his first time having sex.
“It’s not that I felt unprepared because Living Skills was not taught properly,” Jake says. “It’s that there is only so much you can teach a person: use a condom, scare him with STD talks and do it with ‘someone you care about.’ A day of the safe sex that we covered in Living Skills would have been sufficient and then I think it’s up to you to explore.”
Paly Living Skills teacher Leticia Burton agrees that there is a limit to what Living Skills can teach students when it comes to being sexually active. Burton, who has taught the course for 15 years, recalls students who initially disliked her class, but later came back with a newfound appreciation for the course.
“I think sexual exploration is a good thing; period,” Burton says. “I feel like the only thing I can do is cast seeds. Who knows where the seeds will take root and what will grow.”
Burton, who teaches on average three periods of Living Skills per semester, says she adapts her curriculum every semester to modernize it. A new addition this semester is a role playing activity in which students practice setting limits with partners.
Burton agrees that the Living Skills sex education unit focuses mostly on contraception. Because she teaches minors, Burton has to be cautious to not promote sex in any way when discussing the physical aspects of sex.
“Technically, I can’t teach about ‘sex’ per se, because it’s not a how-to class,” Burton says. “I can’t advocate for any particular type of sex over the other, because then it’s the school and the district are advocating for that. At a certain point, where’s the line between education and pornography?”
Burton agrees that Living Skills could focus more on the emotional aspects of sex, as she considers them to be important. However, as state and federal curriculum do not mandate conversations about emotional health surrounding sex, all such curriculum must be compiled by the teacher.
“Oh my god, it [the emotional aspect] is huge,” Burton says. “I think that that’s something that we could talk about more in Living Skills. Whether you’re having sex, same-sex sex or heterosexual sex, it’s a very intimate, very personal, vulnerable act.”
Weber’s team hopes that the act will focus discussions around sex more on the emotional aspects of sex. According to Joe Kocurek, the press secretary for Assemblymember Weber, the updated curriculum hopes to reflect the changes that have occurred in the past 25 years in interpersonal relationships between teens. New material that will be mandated by the bill include adolescent relationship abuse, sexual harassment and sexual trafficking. However, parents and students would continue to be able to opt-out of instruction with a written notice.
“It’s intended to encourage healthy behaviors, or attitudes or relationships, rather than focusing on the mechanics of disease transmission or pregnancy,” Kocurek says. “We’re leaning towards helping people make healthy decisions about that, including pregnancy prevention. It’s beyond the ‘old fashioned’ approach to it. It’s getting more involved in what we’ve discovered about human relationships over the past few years, including more current concerns.”
Burton says that other aspects of the course, such as discussions surrounding gender roles, also tie into sex ed because they comprise a significant part of every relationship.
“I think that the physical stuff is easier to teach, and it’s easier for kids to engage in, so when you start talking about the emotional stuff, people clam up and don’t want to talk,” Burton says. “That makes it difficult because that stuff is so intangible and that stuff is much more personal.”
Conversations surrounding sexual education that cover emotions are relevant when many Paly students have sex outside of committed relationships. Although Chris, a junior, feels more drawn to relationships, he finds that casual hookups comprise the majority of his sexual activity. Chris wishes that navigating the world of hookups or casual sex was taught as part of sexual education.
“Living Skills really only teaches you how to be safe in a controlled environment and they don’t really understand that most kids get their sexual experience from hookups, which is a completely uncontrolled environment,” Chris says. “I think they should teach you how to take that uncontrolled environment and make it controlled, not just expect the environment to be controlled.”
Burton has noticed the hookup culture at Paly, and she is struggling to adapt her curriculum to discuss the trend.
“There probably needs to be more conversation about what that [hookup culture] means,” Burton says. “It seems like hooking up can be incredibly dangerous. Casual sex can be fun, it can be exciting, it can be exhilarating, but it can also be really painful, especially if a person isn’t really clear about why they’re doing it.”
“It [the new sex ed] is beyond the ‘old fashioned’ approach to it.” – Joe Kocurek, Assemblymember Weber’s Press Secretary
Because individual curriculum is not decided at a policy level, Kocurek is unsure whether or not ‘hookup culture’ will be a mandated topic in Living Skills classes. However, he says that discussions surrounding casual sex fall under the proposed mandate of education about healthy attitudes and healthy relationships.
Education for everyone
Chris, a gay man, says the focus on straight sex present in the current living skills curriculum is not educational enough for him. To Chris, the hyper focus on contraceptive methods, rather than sexual exploration and healthy sexual expression, can have detrimental effects.
“I feel like it [Living Skills] is very narrow-minded,” Chris says. “Queer kids are kind of hung out to dry. It’s like, ‘OK, great, that’s how you do stuff for straight people, do I get anything?’”
Chris says that the Living Skills curriculum should include more information about LGBTQ sex. Sophie, a senior at Paly who expresses romantic but not sexual affection towards all genders, agrees that Living Skills needs to have more open discussions about sex in non-straight or transgender contexts.
“It [Living Skills] is very subjective due to the difference in teachers, and is very heteronormative,” Sophie says. “ They [Living Skills and conversations about sex] are both very trans-exclusive, with assumptions about heterosexual sex and genitalia, and very straight-focused, in a way that forgets non-straight sex until it gets mentioned, and then attempts to move past it as quickly as possible.”
Although Living Skills includes some education about sexualities and gender, Burton acknowledges that LGBTQ issues are not discussed as much as they could be in the sex unit. She explains that she finds herself struggling to respect everyone’s views and identities when discussing topics surrounding sex and identity.
“As a teacher, I get concerned about not wanting it to appear like I’m pushing a ‘homosexual agenda,’” Burton says. “It is just being aware that in the class, there are some pretty conservative kids. It is a balance that is so complex in a classroom situation.”
The California Healthy Youth Act mandates discussions surrounding sexual health and the LGBTQ community. The act, which also focuses on changing language and more comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention, would require teens to engage in conversations surrounding health issues that are important for LGBTQ youth, including knowledge of health issues specific to transgender people.
“It is intended to be inclusive of those students, so that they don’t have to translate in their heads what it means for them as a member of that community,” Kocurek says. “We believe that it needs to be more direct, given that there are specific concerns in those communities. They need to know that they are included in the curriculum, and that they get the information that they need.”
The future of sex ed
Students at Paly, for the most part, want change. Living Skills is a commonly discussed and complained about subject, according to Burton.
“They need to diversify,” Chris says. “In this era of society, teenagers are becoming more sexually active younger and younger, and they are doing more and more things, so if we don’t start diversifying very quickly, we’re going to see a huge spike in kids with huge psychological problems later in life.”
Signed into law last week, the act will go into effect Jan. 1, 2016. School districts will be required to start developing curriculum then, although the process would most likely begin sooner, according to Kocurek.
The American Civil Liberties of California, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, Equality California, Forward Together and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California all sponsor the act, according to Kocurek. The act had strong approval, with 60 organizations and 62 individuals formally registering their support. Only two organizations, the California Right to Life Committee, Inc. and the Capitol Resource Institute registered in opposition to the legislation, according to Weber’s team.
“There is only so much that you can teach a person. Then it’s up to you to explore.”— Jake, a Paly senior
Ultimately, Kocurek and Weber’s team behind the act hope to aid teenagers in their transformative years by providing them with a more comprehensive sexual education.
“There are a lot of influences on kids these days, and they need to make informed decisions,” Kocurek says. “We feel that we need to update it [sex education] so that they feel that in the end they can decide, ‘I want to have a healthy relationship.’ Ultimately, it’s empowering students to make the best decisions for themselves.”
Paly students agree that they need more information from educators. While 34.3 percent of total students surveyed felt unprepared, 39.2 percent of girls and 50 percent of surveyed agender students feel that Living Skills did not meet their needs.
In the end, students just want to make the best decisions too.
“After that, you are on your own, as you should be,” Jake says. “The process of sexual exploration should be a personal journey equipped with the basic precautionary information.”