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A Doctor And Sex Educator's Take On The State Of Sex Ed In 2021

Instructors lead a classroom discussion about consent and healthy relationships with a class of sophomores at Central Catholic High School in Portland, Ore., in 2019. (Gillian Flaccus/AP)
Instructors lead a classroom discussion about consent and healthy relationships with a class of sophomores at Central Catholic High School in Portland, Ore., in 2019. (Gillian Flaccus/AP)


State legislatures from Montana to Illinois to Tennessee have recently been taking up bills that address sex education in schools.

Some are moving to mandate more comprehensive curriculums, while others are doubling down on parental consent before anything is discussed in class about human sexuality.

Dr. Jennifer Lincoln says as a practicing OB-GYN in Portland, Oregon, she sees firsthand how this complicated conversation bores out during patient care.

On the problem with leaving it solely up to parents to teach sex ed

In theory, that’s a fantastic idea, Lincoln says. But, it assumes parents themselves have had accurate and comprehensive sex ed and also feel comfortable discussing it in an age-appropriate way.

“In the perfect world, it should be both having the schools covering comprehensive sex education information and also seeing the parents as partners in those ongoing conversations because it’s not a one and done, it’s an ongoing conversation for sure,” she says.

On how she sees a lack of education play out amongst her patients

Lincoln sees patients every day who don’t understand how their bodies work because there has been so much time spent in sex ed just talking about how to avoid pregnancy and infections.

“I also see many people who have problems, whether it’s pain with sex, other issues with their periods, and they’ve never brought them up because they’ve never been given a language to discuss them in a shame-free way,” Lincoln says. “Because when you say that you’re not going to teach these things in school, you say that these are too shameful to discuss.”

On what kinds of topics are being taught in sex ed

What a student learns in sex ed can vary depending on what state they live in, she says.

For example, in Alabama, schools are not mandated to teach sex ed and if they do choose to cover it, it does not have to be medically accurate.

Compare that to Oregon, where Lincoln lives, and the reality is very different. Sex ed is mandated in the state and must be medically accurate, age appropriate and culturally appropriate.

On using social media platforms to answer people’s questions about sex

Lincoln uses Tik Tok and Instagram to educate people about sex and their bodies.

“So myself and other health care professionals, we’re going to online platforms to meet these people where they’re at and hopefully giving them the tools to speak up, feel empowered and know how their bodies work,” she says.

On how adults should be having conversations about sex ed curriculums

Parents and school leaders that want to have conversations about sex ed curriculums should start with the understanding that just talking about sex with young people does not mean they are going to automatically go out and start having sex, Lincoln says.

She believes it’s important to focus on giving young people information so that when they are older, they are prepared and will not feel ashamed talking about it.

“It can feel overwhelming when you feel like you are the only parent in a child’s classroom who wants comprehensive sex education,” she says.

“But speaking up, talking to your educators, working at the local level, and if you’re still not getting that at school, to know that if it does fall on your shoulders, there are lots of good programs and information out there that can help you as a parent give your child the comprehensive, medically accurate sex education that they need and they deserve,” she says.

KC Slack, a sex educator in Los Angeles, says teaching comprehensive sex education needs to include the LGBTQ community.

On growing up in Ohio and learning about sex education in high school

Slack says their experience with sex education in high school basically didn’t exist. And when it did, it wasn’t great.

“It was terrifying to me that what we were being taught was basically like that scene from ‘Mean Girls:’ If you have sex, you’ll get chlamydia and die,” they say. “That’s basically the sex ed I got as a senior in high school. It was one day of images of overdeveloped STIs and a birth video. Both of which were terrifying.”

On approaching sex education as a teacher in Los Angeles

The organization Slack works for is non-religious and includes comprehensive sex education that’s inclusive of all ages and the LGBTQ community.

“The youngest classes I’ve with more than sex ed are with fourth graders where we talk about you have a body and there are some correct words for your body parts,” they say. “And I didn’t know the words penis and vagina until I was in high school. And it turns out to be really important for young people to know the correct words for their bodies.”

On how more inclusive sex education benefits everyone

Inclusive sex education gets people to think about who are they in an open way, Slack says.

“A lot of individual people’s feelings of nervousness around queer and trans people are about their own shaky feeling of well, would I do something else if I thought that it was okay? If I thought it was okay to change my gender, would I do that?” they say. “Having not actually asked those questions and had space to ask those questions makes people anxious, and anxious people are reactive.

On how rethinking sex education could help stop violence against transgender people

Heterosexuality and masculinity are so narrowly defined, Slack says, that any deviation leads to an attack in status.

“… There is this desire to make that somebody else’s fault. But if you’ve had time and education about how gender works, how trans people experience gender, what sexuality is, and if you’ve had space to explore without judgment who you are and how you feel, you are less likely to respond to your own internal fear of status shift,” they say.

Ashley Locke and Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Locke and Jeannette Muhammad adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.