Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Sex ed is a necessity, but not a requirement, in AZ

2013-08-29T09:30:00Z 2013-08-29T15:10:06Z Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Sex ed is a necessity, but not a requirement, in AZSarah Garrecht Gassen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

We’re going to be talking about sex, so let’s just get this out of the way first:

Vagina.

Penis.

Fallopian tubes (which sounds like the name of a water-slide attraction but isn’t).

Talking about sex, sexuality and relationships isn’t easy — especially when it’s a parent talking with a daughter or son.

So let’s just embrace it. Get over ourselves. Open up the window and shout OVARIES! Whatever it takes. Drop “vas deferens” into a casual conversation and see if anyone notices.

In a state like Arizona, which allows school districts to offer a semester-long course in gun safety for high school credit if they so choose but doesn’t require them to teach lifesaving information about HIV and AIDS, kids can’t afford for their adults to be squeamish or embarrassed.

School districts are allowed to teach sex education in Arizona public schools, but they’re not required to — and many don’t.

Avoidance doesn’t keep teenagers from becoming sexually active; it means many do so without a full understanding of how to protect themselves against pregnancy and disease — or how to handle the emotional side of intimate relationships. Sexuality isn’t only about plumbing. It’s about the whole person and how we relate to each other. And when people aren’t prepared, it becomes about power and unhealthy decisions — circumstances no parents would want for their children.

If Arizona public schools do teach sex ed, they must emphasize abstinence — just don’t do “it”— as the best way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease (kind of a scientific no-duh).

Planned Parenthood Arizona offers a program called SHARE, for Sexual Health and Responsible Education. It provides medically accurate information to schools that request it to help with sex education lessons. They can train teachers or give the talks themselves. A primary mission for the nonprofit is health education, and this program is part of that goal.

“We don’t want people making a life-altering choice without having had any education about it,” said Vicki Hadd-Wissler, director of education for Planned Parenthood Arizona.

Arizona is an opt-in state, which means parents have to give specific permission for their children to be in the sex-ed class. Some parents will keep their kids out of sex ed based on religious grounds, but others just don’t bother to sign the permission slip when it comes home.

“There is a disconnect between parents who think they’ve talked about sex with their kids, and kids who think they’ve talked about it,” Hadd-Wissler said.

Not saying anything about sex to your kids says a lot. They get the message. “And if they don’t hear about it at school, we’re saying to young people you’re on your own,” she said.

If a school district does decide to teach about HIV and AIDS, state law requires that the information be medically accurate, which isn’t a requirement for sex education overall. Schools can use an abstinence-only curriculum that doesn’t include contraception or disease prevention — which is akin to giving teenagers the car keys and instructing them to drive safely, but not telling them how to use the steering wheel.

Pretending that teenagers won’t have sex because they’ve been told not to is foolish. Not everyone will, of course, but according to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey results, almost half do.

In fact, 5 percent of respondents reported that they’d had sexual intercourse before the age of 13. These are children we’re talking about.

Of the teens who reported having had sexual intercourse in the past three months, 59 percent said they used a condom. Others reported using birth control pills or an injected, long-lasting contraceptive to prevent pregnancy, but those don’t protect against disease.

The consequences of ignorance are immense. What if every child brought into the world were a thoughtful, educated choice? Think about how different lives would be across our community.

It’s challenging to write and talk about this subject without being afraid of wandering into territory that can be so easily misconstrued or taken out of context. We can’t ignore the fact that children born to people who aren’t prepared to be, or even all that interested in becoming, parents start out life with the deck stacked against them.

I don’t believe that anyone chooses to be a bad parent — it’s the lack of making a choice, of letting life just happen to you and the kids you bring into the world — that helps create such a shaky foundation for a child.

Not every person who is physically able to have a child is meant to be a parent — biologically speaking, yes, but not in the greater sense of nurturing a growing human.

If every Arizona student had accurate, plain-talking, age-appropriate and unhindered educational discussions about sexuality, then light bulbs would go on and people would look at their own situations and decide whether to have a child.

Every child should be a choice.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Email her at sgassen@azstarnet.com and follow her on Facebook

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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