Thousands of students graduate from Anchorage School District high schools every spring. For most graduates, what they know about reproductive health as they enter adulthood depends on what their biology teachers decided to teach and what they recall from their eighth-grade health class.
“Students have no reproductive health requirements at all from ninth through 12th grades,” said Sharon Vaissiere, ASD's Health and Physical Education Programs coordinator.
ASD curriculum provides sex education in fifth and sixth grade, teaching abstinence and body changes, and a health class in eighth grade that promotes abstinence but also includes information on sexually transmitted diseases and birth control.
“We try to give them a little information, but they're not ready to fully absorb it,” Vaissiere said. “Students really need to be re-inoculated. That's where we're not covering what we need to.”
A minority of high school students take an optional healthy life skills class, offered in some high schools, Vaisserie said. But most students get high-school sex education through biology class, where HIV/AIDS is covered during a chapter on viruses.
Vaisserie said it's up to individual biology teachers whether to expand on that information to cover other reproductive health issues.
There are currently no statistics regarding what ASD high school students know about reproductive health when they graduate.
What do college students know?
Chris Lavarias is a 19-year-old biological sciences major at UAA who graduated from Chugiak High School. He just finished his freshman year of college. Like many students, he learned about reproductive health instruction during ninth-grade biology class. “They taught us about HIV/AIDS when they talked about viruses,” Lavarias said. “But they actually used that against us. They used that to frighten us. What really irritated me was that they never encouraged using condoms. They just said, ‘Don't do it.'”
Reverend Mary Koch, a chaplain in the spiritual care department at Providence Alaska Medical Center, said her four teenagers, who attended Service High School and currently go to South High School, had a different experience with the district.
“They've learned a whole lot in school,” Koch said. “It's a technical aspect, not from one personal view or another. They talk a lot about family planning and the realities of disease. I think they've done a good job with my children.”
Lavarias said he learned most of what he knew about reproductive health before high school graduation by talking with peers and older siblings.
“They were the ones who would give me condoms, because they wanted me to be safe,” he said.
Lavarias said he wasn't sure how often sexually active people should get STD screenings, and said he didn't know a lot about the different kinds of STDs.
What does the university do to inform?
UAA Student Health and Counseling Center director Mary Anne Wilson said she and her staff hear lots of questions from students about reproductive health.
“Sometimes students think we assume they already know this information,” Wilson said. “So they're afraid to ask questions because they might look silly. There aren't any silly questions. It's already been asked. We've heard it.”
Wilson said there are many misconceptions about reproductive health she and her staff encounter among college students. Some of the common misconceptions Wilson listed include thinking birth control pills cause weight gain or offer protection against STDs, being unaware of all the birth control options available, and not understanding the relationship between genital warts and cervical cancer.
“We see a lot of students who have never had a Pap smear,” Wilson said. “A lot of students don't understand we do a Pap smear so you can catch these changes in the cervix before they become cancer, because they're so slow growing.”
The Student Health and Counseling Center has free condoms and informational brochures in its waiting rooms. It offers low-cost STD screening to all students, and free screening to students who use the university system's health insurance.
Lavarias said he was happy with the information about reproductive health offered to students at UAA.
“They promote safe sex,” he said. “And it's really great. They totally hand out condoms sporadically. It's basically trying to tell students not to go unprotected.”
Like Anchorage public high schools, UAA doesn't require reproductive health education for graduation. Students may receive varied levels of instruction on reproductive health in certain science classes, or they may sign up for the university's human sexuality class.
But many will not take these kinds of classes at all.
Is abstinence-only education enough?
Anchorage students may not have all the information about their reproductive health, but they're not alone.
Many American teens enter adulthood without accurate information about reproductive health, according to a 2004 congressional report for California Representative Henry Waxman titled “The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs.”
The report evaluated the 13 most widely-used abstinence-only programs funded by Special Projects of Regional and National Significance (SPRANS), the largest source of federal dollars for abstinence-only sex education. SPRANS dollars for abstinence-only programs began in 2001 with a budget of $20 million. That federal funding source for abstinence-only programs has since grown, with $104 million appropriated in fiscal year 2005.
The report found that abstinence-only curricula contained false information about contraceptives and the risks of abortion, presented religious views and stereotypes about girls and boys as scientific fact, and was riddled with other scientific errors, such as claiming a sperm and egg contain 24 chromosomes each when they contain only 23.
But some groups insist abstinence-only programs are important and necessary for sex-education. In “Abstinence: Why Sex Is Worth The Wait,” a paper by Marian Wallace and Vanessa Warner published on the Concerned Women for America Web site, the authors state, “As research clearly indicates, America is not suffering from a lack of knowledge about sex, but an absence of virtue. Traditional values like love, commitment, responsibility, integrity and self-control are still relevant today and must be taught.”
The next “sexual revolution”?
Dr. Roger Libby, a sex therapist and author of a new book, “The Naked Truth About Sex,” spoke at the UAA Bookstore May 17 about what he saw as a need for “a new sexual revolution, but one focused on quality, not quantity.”
The book contains useful information about contraceptives and STDs, and advocates comprehensive, sex-positive education in public schools.
“The main objective of sex education would be to help people have enough information to make responsible choices about their lives with sexuality,” Libby said. A comprehensive sex education would provide accurate, age-appropriate information from kindergarten through 12th grade, he said, and would incorporate sex education into other academic subjects as well as being a component of a health curriculum. In “The Naked Truth About Sex,” Libby encourages youth to wait until they are at least 18 to initiate intercourse, but says people should never allow themselves to be pressured in to having sex at any age if they don't want to or aren't ready. One chapter instructs readers how to have a pre-sex discussion, in which potential partners talk about their history with STDs and what it would mean if they had sex. The book also instructs youth to agree on stopping points before getting physical and how to initiate a discussion about sex with parents.
What should schools teach about sexual values?
Tim Ebben, a Catholic father of three teenage daughters who attend Chugiak High School, said he thinks students should have complete and accurate sex education before they graduate high school but doesn't want schools teaching his daughters their religion is wrong.
“They should know what contraceptives are, how they work and how to use them,” he said. “But they shouldn't be taught it's right to use them. Just like some parents don't want schools to teach their kids condoms are wrong.”
Ebben said he thinks medical professionals or experts should present information on STDs to ensure accuracy. Ebben also said information about reproductive health has helped him understand his faith better and would also help his daughters connect to their faith.
“It'd be easier to teach our Catholic faith _” why condoms and birth control aren't right _” if people knew how it worked,” Ebben said. “I don't have a problem with high school students learning about contraception, but I think it should be taught that your own faith and family values determines what's right about their use. It's good to present complete and accurate information while respecting the values parents teach in the home and not contradicting those.”
Reverend Frances Dearman of the Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship said her congregation has a sex education that informs youth and conveys Unitarian Universalist values.
“We respect the dignity and worth of every person, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation,” Dearman said. “That's why we give children the knowledge they are loved and supported, and we empower them to make good decisions through education.”
“The Naked Truth About Sex” encourages parent involvement in sex education, which Vaissiere said the Anchorage School District does not actively do.
“We don't have programs for parents,” Vaissiere said. “We have resources we can refer them to, but very few people ask.”