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Sex Ed Object Lessons: A Discussion From Both Sides

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About 8 in 10 (83%) teens did not receive sex education before they first had sex, according to a report released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Earlier sex education could help further reduce the teen birth rate, the report says, along with the use of evidence-based educational materials, access to and knowledge about contraceptives, and encouragement from adults to delay sexual activity.

The report builds on recent discussions about abstinence-based sex education that have been swirling around the Internet. Specifically, the controversy over using props to discuss sexual decision making. Do object lessons in sex education classes help students reflect on the emotional impact of physically intimate relationships? Or do they promote shame?

I blogged last week about criticisms of Mississippi's 2011 law that requires all schools in the state to teach abstinence-only or "abstinence plus" sex-ed classes. Like many other reporters, I was spurred to write about the subject by an Los Angeles Times article that outlined concerns with the law (teachers can't demonstrate the use of contraceptives or teach students about abortions, for example).

But many other national media outlets zeroed in on an anecdote I didn't even mention in my post (I was too interested in this Youtube video). The Times story mentioned a lesson designed to teach students about the consequences of sexual promiscuity:

"The curricula adopted by the school district in Oxford called on students to unwrap a piece of chocolate, pass it around class and observe how dirty it became.

'They're using the Peppermint Pattie to show that a girl is no longer clean or valuable after she's had sex—that she's been used,' said Barnard, who works in public health. 'That shouldn't be the lesson we send kids about sex.'"

Mississippi First, an organization working to implement more comprehensive sex education in the state, has since released a statement criticizing the portrayal:

"Contrary to your headlines--and even the present progressive tense in some of your stories--Oxford School District is not teaching a curriculum that compares girls to nasty, passed-around chocolate. In 2012, Oxford's school board revised the district's sex education policy to require evidence-based, medically accurate, and age-appropriate curricula."

Mississippi First—which described the new state law as "seriously flawed" but an improvement over a previous lack of sex-ed requirements—described the lesson in question as a "shaming" activity that is not evidence-based. Such activities discourage sexual activity by attempting to convince students that they will diminish their own experience or sense of value a little bit more with each new sexual act or partner. And, while the Oxford district abandoned such practices quickly after an outcry from outraged moms, 70% of Mississippi school districts reported to the state's education department an intention to use a curricula with a "shaming" activity, Mississippi First said.

Those lessons don't just involve pieces of chocolate. I've heard of lessons that  involve a can of Coke filled with backwash or a piece of chewed up gum. Or they might look like the lesson demonstrated in this video, in which the speaker uses a strip of packing tape to represent a woman, who loses a bit of her "bonding power" every time she is adhered an pulled off of another teen boy's arm.

That lesson is part of the W.A.I.T. Training materials created by the Denver-based Center for Relationship Education (W.A.I.T. stands for Why Am I Tempted?). Joneen Mackenzie, a nurse by training and the organization's founder, said in a phone interview that her team works with focus groups to constantly revise and update its prevention curriculum to make sure it is effectively communicating with teens. The tape illustration is optional for teachers who use W.A.I.T. Training, and it is not intended to promote a sense of shame, Mackenzie said.

"Our intent is to showcase the issue of bonding," Mackenzie said. The object lesson is followed by a discussion of the effects of sex on the brain, with talk of neurotransmitters and the release of hormones that promote intimacy, she said.

Mackenzie favors the tape illustration over the chocolate illustration or another she's heard of, where a teacher peels petals off a rose to represent each sexual act. Those illustrations make her uncomfortable, she said: "It's all gone at the end, and it's all yucky. I don't like that."

In another object lesson used in W.A.I.T. Training, the instructor shakes an Etch-A-Sketch to show students that they can have a fresh start, even if they regret past decisions.

But Sanford Johnson, the deputy director of advocacy at  Mississippi First, said none of the illustrations are helpful, and many promote a sense of shame for sexually active students, particularly girls. Sex education should focus on positive examples of healthy relationships, not cautionary tales, he said.

"I think comparing our young girls to toothpaste and tape, that just doesn't make a lot of sense to me," Johnson said. "I think teens can see right through that. They want medically accurate and fact-based information."

Fact-based information like how to use contraceptives, discussion that is banned under current state law, he said.

Mackenzie agrees that sex ed should focus on healthy relationships, but she sees no need for condom demonstrations. Students hear a lot of clinical information in schools, but they don't hear enough about the emotional impact of sex, she said.

"They live in the information superhighway," she said. "If they wanted to learn that, they can Google it."

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