When Stephanie* began working as a reproductive-health educator in a school-based clinic, she had her work cut out for her. The initial hurdle: convincing the students of confidentiality. Her teenage clients found it hard to believe that they wouldn’t get in trouble for being sexually active. But once she earned their trust, the questions they had for her were astonishing—in fact, she was taken aback by the misconceptions that her middle- and high-school patients had about sex, reproduction, and their bodies.
“I had 16-year-old kids coming in who didn’t know why they were having their period. And these are kids who are sexually active,” Stephanie said.
She wondered what they were being taught in their health classrooms—they seemed ignorant of basic anatomy. Once, waves of students came in to get tested for HIV, even though they reported they weren’t having sex. She discovered that their health instructor had told them they could contract HIV from casual contact.
Such misinformation was dangerous. “Now they don’t know how to protect themselves during sex,” Stephanie said, “and they’re going to shun people who are HIV positive, or who have family that’s HIV positive.”
But even worse for the students than receiving misinformation, she said, was getting no information about sexuality at all. “It gives kids the idea that it’s not even appropriate to ask questions,” Stephanie said. “They’re embarrassed to ask, and then they do the craziest things.”
How did it come to pass that schools, supposed places of learning, have fostered an environment where young people are afraid to ask questions? And where sex is associated with shame and secrecy? For those who remember their sexuality education—if they received any at all—this may sound familiar. Or perhaps not at all. Because one student’s experience can vary wildly from another’s, within the same state, district, or even school. The inconsistency stems, in part, from the existence of a number of federal funding streams for sex-ed programs. The Administration for Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF), for instance, administers two very different initiatives: the Personal Responsibility Program (PREP), which requires educators to provide students with medically accurate and age-appropriate sex education, and Title V, an abstinence-only-until-marriage program.