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AIDS Conference, New Documentary Raise Questions About Sex Ed.

AIDSQuilt_400.jpg

From guest blogger Nirvi Shah:

In Ms. Morris' health education class in Greenville, Miss., a lesson on sexually transmitted diseases is almost comic.

And Ms. Morris seems to know it.

She can't say the words condom or contraceptive to explain how the spread of an STD, including HIV/AIDS, might be prevented, much less to prevent pregnancy.

In the new film "deepsouth", Ms. Morris soldiers on, using cups of candy, and sharing them among students, to demonstrate the spread of an STD.

The documentary, which premiered Tuesday night in Washington, coinciding with the 2012 International AIDS conference, spent only a moment on the role of sex education in the prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS. The film is more about the social issues related to the illness, the rates of which are high in the rural South, although much of the U.S. fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS has been overseas.

But education's role is critical in the prevention of their spread, film director Lisa Biagiotti said.

"Education at least should be one of the first drivers of change," she said in an interview. "If you can't even talk about what's going on, you're setting yourself up for failure."

New statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week, in connection with the AIDS conference, directly link the need for "renewed educational efforts" and other interventions to reduce the number of young people with HIV.

The data show that as of 2009, while people age 15-29 make up 21 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 39 percent of all new HIV infections. And while about half of all teens report they are sexually active, only 60 percent of those having sex use condoms, although that is up from 20 years ago, the CDC said.

"The results suggest that progress in reducing some HIV-related risk behaviors among high school students overall and in certain populations stalled in the past decade," the agency said.

In Mississippi, for the first time, districts will be required to teach sex education in the 2012-13 school year. In a state that regularly reports the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the country, school districts will have a choice of teaching how to prevent pregnancy and the spread of STDs through abstinence-only material or with an "abstinence-plus" approach. The latter includes information about contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases, but specifically bans instruction and demonstrations involving condoms.

Earlier this year, a coalition of groups unveiled new national sexuality education standards, noting with their release that research shows abstinence-based sex education is ineffective in preventing young people from having sex. A 2007 congressionally mandated study found no statistically significant beneficial effect on the sexual behavior of young people participating in abstinence-based programs.

Tennessee, meanwhile, just adopted a new law that bans teaching students about "gateway sexual activity."

Under the new law, writes the International Business Times, Tennessee's curriculum must "exclusively and emphatically promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, regardless of a student's current or prior sexual experience." Teachers or organizations that teach students about "gateway sexual activity," which is only vaguely defined in the law, could be fined $500.

Utah, meanwhile rejected an abstinence-only sex education law, while Wisconsin adopted one.

The approach to sex education in the South, and many other parts of the country, is wrong, said Kathie Hiers, the chief executive officer of AIDS Alabama, who was featured in "deepsouth."

At one point in the film, she said she had so many friends dying of AIDS that she threw her address book away and started over.

"When you look at the STD rate and the teen pregnancy rate, it is shameful," Hiers said after the premiere. "We've got to keep working on this."

Library Intern Amy Wickner contributed to this report.

Photo: Phangisile Mtshali walks among the panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt at The National Mall in Washington earlier this week. The quilt display, a memorial to those who have died from AIDS, is being displayed in its entirety for the first time since 1996. (Kelly Guenther/AP)

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