As a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, I spend a lot of time discussing sexual health with teens and parents. Often, the young person has arms folded and a scowling face, the parent is shaking a finger and lecturing the teen, and neither is sharing helpful information. At other times, I have teens and parents who are communicating openly on topics such as whether the teen plans to be sexually active after starting on effective contraception and vowing to use condoms, or will be abstinent for the foreseeable future — no conflict, just a family communicating honestly.
Those family discussions underscore for me the urgent need for young people to have access to comprehensive sex education, even to adequately talk about sex with their parents. Unfortunately, that access is now under threat in Florida’s legislature.
According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance data, a nationwide survey of in-school youth, 16% of Hillsborough County teens are sexually active in ninth grade, and a significant portion of kids are active at an even earlier age. By the time our youth are in 12th grade, well over half are sexually active. More alarmingly, of those who are sexually active, 42% had sex without a condom and 74% did not use any effective contraception during their last sexual intercourse.
This helps explain why our teens and young adults have astoundingly high rates of sexually transmitted disease. The United States also has some of the highest unplanned teen pregnancy rates among developed countries. Teen pregnancy dramatically impacts future educational and career goals and prospects. Moreover, young people who engage in unhealthy relationships may have difficulty recognizing and nurturing appropriate relationships when they are older. When I discuss these issues with parents, I know many are thinking to themselves, “Yeah, but not my kid.” The reality is, it very often is your kid.
As parents, we all want the same things for our children. We want them to be stable and self-sustaining adults, capable of making their own decisions. We want them to have a mature sex life and be intimate with their partner in a mutually rewarding way. To do this however, requires a complex set of skills and emotional maturity developed over years. And as with all topics that are inherently complex and important to society, our schools are the institutions that we, as parents, rely upon to help prepare our children for adulthood.
Teachers with a well-designed sexual education curriculum provide critical information for our future adults, such as the efficacy of different contraceptive methods, the symptoms of STDs, statistics related to sexual assault and the scientific benefits versus risks of various types of sexual behavior, including abstinence. Parents and guardians however, are often not equipped with this information, or willing to have these sometimes embarrassing conversations. A good public school curriculum such as the one recently developed by Hillsborough County Schools encourages parent-child discussions on sex-related topics. Good decisions by our youth about sex are the result of teamwork between teachers and parents.
Unfortunately, access to comprehensive sex education is now threatened by politicians in Tallahassee in the form of Senate Bill 410. This “opt in” legislation would restrict young people’s access to sex education by forcing parents to sign a permission slip, rather than requiring them to “opt out” in writing. The people who will suffer from this egregious legislation are youth who desire the education but are too embarrassed to request permission from their parents, as well as youth whose parents may be less involved with their children (or just struggling to keep up with everyday life and might easily overlook a permission slip) and thus miss the opportunity to grant this instruction. For Florida parents who are engaged with their children and do not want them to participate, the current “opt out” strategy already provides that control.
As noted by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, opt-in policies “create unnecessary hurdles that prevent students from accessing the sex education they have a right to receive … for some young people, school-based sex education is their only opportunity to receive this vital information, and opt in policies risk eliminating it completely.”
Our parents, teachers, community members and youth collectively are the safety net for our children. While parents instill values and morals in their children, teachers must be enabled to provide needed factual information, so that Florida’s youth can develop into healthy adults with healthy sex lives. I implore you to reach out to your state representatives in opposition to Senate Bill 410.
Dr. Diane Straub is chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the University of South Florida and medical director of the Ybor Youth Clinic. She received her M.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University and her Masters in Public Health degree from Harvard University.