I would like to think that all of my friends have changed my perspective on things for the better in terms of a lot of different topics. But honestly, no one has changed my outlook on a more important issue than Erin has. As a junior in Sargent studying health science, Erin McSweeney spends a good amount of her time dedicated to educating others about reproductive health. From volunteering with Peer Health Exchange to answering random questions for friends between Big Mouth episodes, she is willing to teach anyone (and hopefully everyone) about these things. Here is our conversation on sex ed and why society needs it.
Noelle: How did you discover your interest in learning/teaching sex ed?
Erin: I have always been really interested in health and medicine and as I went through high school, I realized I really wanted to focus my future career in public health. As I did more research into different subfields of public health, I realized that I had a particular interest in epidemiology, specifically HIV/AIDS and other STIs. What was so interesting, and infuriating, to me about STI research is that these diseases don’t need to exist. In a perfect world, if everyone was having protected sex, these diseases would eventually disappear.
Noelle: How could this area of education improve?
Erin: There are so many ways in which Sex Ed can improve. First of all, access to this education needs to be drastically improved. Many states do not mandate that Sex Ed must be taught in schools, so many students get no sex ed or abstinence-only sex education. Abstinence-only has been consistently proven to not work at deterring students from engaging in safe and healthy sexual experiences or any sexual behavior.
Even in programs which are more comprehensive and cover pregnancy prevention and STIs, there are still many ways they can improve. Often, many sex ed curriculums are very heteronormative and focus primarily on vaginal sex. The absence of education on all of the types of sex puts students at a major disadvantage for being able to protect themselves during a variety of sexual experiences. This heteronormativity of sex ed also deprives many LGBTQ+ students of the same comprehensive experience, and many students then need to seek out other resources, some of which may not be as reliable of sources as a school program.
Noelle: Why is sex ed important for kids in this society?
Erin: If no one ever teaches you about STIs, teaches you how to use a condom, or even teaches you about your basic reproductive anatomy, you won’t have the tools to protect yourself. I think that’s what drew me to teaching Sex Ed and doing research about the effects of not having it. And once I started learning more and more about the Sex Ed in this country, I learned just how broken that system is. I became dedicated to trying to do something to fix it.
Also, in my personal opinion, more schools need to focus on issues of consent. Knowledge on consent should be continually instilled in students in the classroom so that when they begin to engage in sexual activity, they are able to have emotionally safe and healthy experiences for all of the people involved. These same discussions and ideas should be extended into discussions about how to have healthy relationships and bring information about domestic violence/abuse to the discussions of a sex ed classroom.
Want to get involved in Peer Health Exchange like Erin? Visit their website for more information.