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Teaching Young Students About the Birds and the Bees

ART BY DANIELLE WATERMAN

By Melissa Malley
Peer Health Exchange volunteers use an intuitive approach to sex education.

Every Wednesday at 10 a.m., Rachel McGown, a Fordham student, heads to a public high school in the Bronx to teach health education to ninth graders. She greets students as they enter the classroom with a smile on her face. “Begin responding to this question: What percentage of ninth graders have had vaginal sex?” she asks. While most teachers shudder at the idea of talking about sex in front of a full class, for Rachel it’s no big deal.

“I want to do everything I can to make them feel comfortable asking questions because we don’t know their circumstances, and they may not have anyone else to talk to,” she said. She had a lot of her own questions about sex while she was in high school, but she only had friends, not educators, to talk about them with.

Effective sex education addresses a wide variety of issues that sex can pose for young people, from birth control to consent and healthy relationships. Despite the importance of sex ed programs, research on student outcomes in New York City suggests that the current model most schools use is not working.

Rachel volunteers with Peer Health Exchange (PHE), a national nonprofit that selectively recruits and trains college students to be health educators in classrooms. The organization primarily partners with students at schools like Fordham University that are located in low-income neighborhoods.

“If they’re not having these conversations in a space that’s conducive to giving them the proper information, they’re going to seek out the information or talk about it through other means, whether it’s social media or looking it up on the internet,” said Manish Sreevatsava, a PHE program manager in New York City. But these sources can provide misinformation or even dangerous myths about sex.

In New York City, 17.7 percent of students are sexually active, according to the Center for Disease Control. Of these students, 24.1 percent report using no methods of birth control when engaging in sexual activity. Research has shown that there are immediate and long-lasting consequences of unwanted teen pregnancies. A study published by the Maternal and Child Health Journal found that there was a “high co-occurrence of depression and parental stress among adolescent mothers.”

In addition to the physical and psychological issues that poor sex education can perpetuate,  Sreevatsava cited misconceptions that circulate among students. A common one is the Mountain Dew myth, which suggests that the soda serves as birth control by lowering a man’s sperm count. “[The Mountain Dew myth] has existed for decades. I can’t even tell you where that originated, but it’s something that you’ll constantly hear in a lot of classrooms year-over-year,” Sreevatsava said.

These myths have serious consequences. Teenage mothers often do not complete higher levels of education, which dramatically reduces financial opportunities. According to the Urban Institute, only 10 percent of teen mothers complete a two or four-year college program. And research from Yale University has shown teen fathers are 25 to 30 percent less likely to graduate from high school compared to their peers.

Sreevatsava weighed in on what he thinks causes these outcomes for young people in high-poverty neighborhoods of the city. “A lot of [health education] curricula are just very dry,” he said. Schools also prioritize math, English and science classes in ninth and tenth grade to prepare students for the Regents exams. As a result, schools end up postponing health classes for later.

Why Students Need Proper Sex Ed

“I’m taking health for the first time in high school,” said Yarazet, a twelfth grader in the Bronx. Another twelfth grader, Edwin, said that he has not taken health yet and has no intentions of doing so before graduation. “It’s not required,” he said. “By the time health teachers are having conversations about sex ed, it’s often times way too late because students have already engaged with a lot of these topics,” Sreevatsava said.

Delaying sex education poses both safety and health issues. Nationwide, 7.4 percent of students have been physically forced to have sexual intercourse when they did not want to, according to CDC research. In New York City, 15.4 percent of teens have experienced sexual dating violence. And for the LGBTQ community, this is an even more prevalent issue: 29.7 percent of teens who have had sex with both sexes have experienced dating violence.

“More time should be spent talking about this stuff,” said Alexandra, a tenth grader in the Bronx. “Everything that happens in health class is going to happen in the future,” she said. “Nowadays people forget about the [sex ed] lessons and do things their own way.” She believes if these conversations about health were ongoing, then people would be more likely to apply the lessons they learned in the heat of the moment.

PHE capitalizes on staffing a volunteer corps close in age to the students they are teaching. Implementing a “near-peer model” in classrooms creates an environment where students feel more willing to ask questions and participate in conversations about their health. Sreevatsava cited this “relatability aspect” as a major benefit of the program model. “It makes students feel more comfortable” having these conversations, she explained, than they would be talking with an adult.

Research on the effectiveness of PHE shows that students in their program are 17 percent more likely to visit a health center, and they are 8 percent more likely to know how to access contraceptives and show greater intentions of using them. They also are 11 percent more likely to be able to define consent accurately in a sexual situation.

Yet the program has its share of shortcomings. Having health educators in the classroom who are close in age to the students is one of the strengths of the program, but it can also be a weakness at times. “I didn’t always feel completely qualified answering some of the questions students had. It also could get super awkward with students asking me intimate questions about my own sexual experiences,” a former PHE volunteer said. PHE staff see these imperfections as inevitable given the subject matter.

Even when resources are in place, students need to learn proper behavior related to sex in order to develop healthy relationships. In one instance, A PHE staff member observed a workshop centered on consent. The class was going over the definition of consent, and two students in the class who were dating began talking about their own experiences. Through their conversation, the couple realized that they had very different ideas about what consent means.

The lesson became an active conversation, led by the two students, which talked through what consent looks like and what type of scenarios constitute as consent given. “I think it was a great moment for them in their relationship, and it enriched the learning of students in the classroom as well,” said Sreevatsava.

Empowering young people with a healthy approach to sexual behavior and relationships sets students up for success, regardless of their socioeconomic status. It can give a young woman the confidence to speak up and say “I’m not ready to have sex yet” to her high school boyfriend, or it can help a varsity football captain not feel guilty knowing he is attracted to other men. As teens struggle with self-image issues, sexual violence and access to resources, effective sex education remains an important tool for teaching students how to advocate for themselves.