I had this new friend, one who appeared cool as I observed her life from behind a phone screen on social media and from across the hallway at St. Petersburg High School. But as we grew closer, I learned her reality: She was coping with chlamydia and human papillomavirus (HPV). Because our schools are afraid to teach real-world sex education, she faced symptoms she was never taught and entered into adult relationships for which she was unprepared.
Forty-one percent of teens are sexually active. Teens are hard-wired with rebellion and sex on the brain, and schools are so uncomfortable with this fact of adolescent human nature that they fail four in 10 of their students with programs that focus on abstinence.
My friend is not alone in her struggles. She is reduced to a statistic, as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are at a record high for the fifth year in a row. The American Sexual Health Association reports one in two sexually active people will contract an STI, and of the 20 million who do per year, half are between 15 and 24. Members of the Pinellas County School Board are no different from many other officials — uncomfortable with change. But without progressive sexual education reform, we all lie in bed with the past.
Frustrated and concerned, I decided to do something. In typical teen fashion, I wanted to throw a party, a Safe Sex Pizza Party. For eight months, I struggled to plan one as an approachable and fun way for students at my school to learn about STIs and sex. This simple idea created controversy. (No, it wasn’t, as some believed, a Sex Party; it was a Safe Sex Pizza Party.)
Confusion and controversy led to countless meetings with my assistant principal and county-level administrators. In a meeting with the head of sex and health for Pinellas County Public Schools, I was told that we could define STIs; however, we could not talk about how they were transmitted or prevented. In other words, officials eliminated every piece of useful information, and eventually revoked my permission to throw the event on school grounds.
Our event found a home at a local coffee shop a mile away from school. I passed out condoms to a crowd of a hundred while we listened to health educators and other speakers cover the importance of sexual safety. A University of South Florida professor spoke on the state of sex ed in Pinellas County. A gynecologist gave a birth control demonstration. A presenter led a dialogue about consent.
The attendance — and the rapt attention paid to every presentation — spoke volumes about the demand for comprehensive sex education. Deprived of useful information, the crowd was shocked silent to finally get it. In response, everyone present wrote a postcard to the school board. Of more than 100 postcards, one stood out to me: “A school’s job is to teach. Stop taking away pieces of my education.” Let’s teach safe sex for the world in which we actually live.
Renata Happle is a senior in the International Baccalaureate Program at St. Petersburg High School.