Veronica grew up in a Catholic household where sex was never discussed except when her parents told her, “Don’t have it.”
In 10th grade, while attending Vo-Tech (now known as Southeast Career Technical Academy), she had a semester-long health class taught by one of the school’s athletic coaches. “He was a very nice man, but he sat at his desk and put in videos,” says Veronica, one of a group of young women I interviewed about their experiences with sex education.
Most of the class dealt with nutrition. When it came time for the unit on sex, the videos they watched barely covered the basics—anatomy, menstruation, hormones. Veronica’s big take-away? Make sure you shower and wear deodorant.
Veronica became pregnant with her first child at 18, the last of her group of five high school friends to have a baby. The day she learned she was pregnant, she also learned she had a sexually transmitted infection. “I didn’t know enough about birth control to use it. Eventually I learned about condoms, but nobody was using them, so I thought, ‘Well, if it’s OK for guys not use them, it must be all right.’ ”
Today, Veronica is a 32-year-old married mother of two working toward completing her undergraduate degree at UNLV. She says she can’t help but wonder how her life might have been different if she had access to better information about birth control and sex.
After a bill designed to create uniform standards for sex education in Nevada public schools died in the state Senate May 24, angry finger-pointing immediately began over who was to blame—Senate Democrats who sidestepped the issue or the bill’s opponents, who argued it would advance a pro-abortion agenda.
AB230 would have required school districts to offer age-appropriate and medically accurate sex education to students, including information about safe and effective methods of contraception, gender stereotypes, negotiating healthy relationships and the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections. The bill’s supporters also hoped it would help reduce Nevada’s teen pregnancy rate, the fourth-highest in the nation.
One group, however, was conspicuously absent from much of the public discussion about the bill: students. What, I wondered, had recent Nevada high school students learned in their school-based sex education? What was discussed, what wasn’t, and where did young people turn to fill in the gaps?
No uniform standards
While Nevada currently has statewide standards for health education, they do not include a specific set of guidelines for teaching about sex, leaving those decisions to local school districts.
“Our current regulations for sex education in Clark Country are abstinence-based, which includes medically accurate, fact-based information on contraception, pregnancy and prenatal care, fetal development and parenthood and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS,” says Shannon La Neve, K-12 health coordinator for the Clark County School District.
What students actually learn, I discovered, varies dramatically from school to school and across different school districts. And judging from the accounts of the young women I interviewed, it doesn’t seem like much has changed since Veronica graduated in 1998.
“I really don’t remember anything I learned from sex education in high school,” Breanna, 21, who graduated from Elko High School in 2009, tells me. “In middle school, they told us…well, they didn’t really tell us anything except, ‘Don’t have sex.’ In high school, it was pretty much the same thing. But you’re a bunch of high school kids. You’re going to want to experiment.”
“I don’t think we had a birth-control unit. They would show us pictures of STIs to scare us, but they never said, ‘If you get an STI you have to go to a doctor; if it’s herpes you have to take medication for the rest of your life but you can still have sex.’ It was implied that if you got an STI your sex life was ruined.”
Breanna wasn’t the only person I talked to who felt that her school-based sex education was light on detailed information and heavy on scare tactics.
Maddie, 17, a senior at Northwest Career & Technical Academy, took a unit on drugs and date rape in eighth grade, followed by three weeks of sex education in her freshman year. She tells the same stories of a focus on STIs, complete with graphic pictures. Despite the limited information she received, she credits her health teacher for cultivating an environment where students could ask questions. But she also admits that, “Because we were so young, we weren’t really sure what questions to ask.”
“Honestly, I wish we would have had sex ed our junior year. Freshman year we still giggled about it. Very few kids were sexually active. I think we were still in that middle school phase. The majority of us weren’t at the point in our lives to really take it in and hear about it.”
‘They call it a cookie or a flower’
Which topics were covered in sex ed—and how they were presented—often depended on the teacher.
Maria, 22, had a teacher at Cimarron Memorial High School who went beyond the district’s curriculum, bringing in her own videos and other materials. She also debunked myths, like the idea that you can’t get pregnant if you have sex in the shower because hot water kills sperm.
Even at the time, Maria realized her teacher was not the norm. “Her method wasn’t to say, ‘Don’t have sex.’ Rather, it was, ‘If you have sex, you need to know this stuff. You need to know what is true and what is not true.’ If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did.”
Despite the efforts of teachers like Maria’s, there are still those students who fall through the cracks. Amber, 26, graduated from Bonanza High School in 2005, yet says she “somehow missed sex ed.”
“I kept waiting for an opportunity to take it—it was something I was interested in—but it was never an option.”
Instead, Amber eventually turned to friends and Planned Parenthood to pick up the slack. “[Clark County School District] failed me as a student. I think in Las Vegas, there’s a lot of access to a lot of different things than if I lived elsewhere. I could go to an Adult Superstore to get the education I needed without getting it in school. But why should we have to go somewhere else? Getting that information in school would’ve been more helpful to me.”
None of this surprises Amanda Morgan, a sexual-health educator who teaches human sexuality at UNLV. “I have students who come into my class and they don’t know the proper name for their genitals. They call it a ‘cookie,’ a ‘flower’ or just ‘down there.’ And that’s because their parents taught them it was a cookie or a flower.”
A 2004 graduate of Las Vegas Academy, Morgan, 26, knows firsthand what sex education in Nevada public schools is like. “I am blown away constantly by the lack of information,” she says. “Students are grateful for the basic, medically accurate information they receive [in my class]. What I teach isn’t based on opinion, it’s based on research—this is how your body functions; this is what happens during arousal; this is how pregnancy happens.”
While a few of the women I spoke with had mothers they felt they could talk to about sex, others acknowledged that if they weren’t getting sex education in the classroom, they weren’t going to get it at all.
“Some people can’t talk to their parents about sex, so I think school is a good place to get it,” Breanna says. “School is your home away from home. When I was in school, I felt my teachers were like parents. Teachers are there to help you learn and sex ed is part of that.”
Veronica, who supported AB230, was surprised to learn the bill had died. What would she say to the legislators who failed to support it?
“I would probably tell them my story, growing up not knowing anything. Not having access to basic information. Not being able to talk to your parents. I am not the only one. There are thousands of people like me.”
Lynn Comella is a women’s studies professor at UNLV. Her column, ‘Unbuttoned,’ examines issues of sex and gender—with a Vegas twist.
Nevada high school grads: What was your experience with sex education in school? Tell us in the comments.