Sex. A word that has so many meanings, and so many blurred and varied definitions. How can sex be defined in a way that is universally understood? The answer is that it can’t. Because there are so many different evaluations of what sex is or isn’t, there is no one way to define it.
But, what about sexual health? While there are so many ways people may choose to define sexual health, it should have a more universal definition; why are there arguments over sexual health? The reason is because not enough people have received the necessary education about sexual health to properly define it. Students, especially college students, should have that education so they are able to make decisions about sex and sexual health that are best for them, and not just off of an assumption.
How many college students really have that education and experience? I conducted a survey with MU students, ranging from freshmen to grad students, asking them questions about their experiences with sexual health throughout their lifetime. Here are some of their responses.
Of the 58 people that responded to my survey, 21.4% believe that sex is a taboo subject.
“People act like the word sex is a bad word and you can’t say it.” said an anonymous surveyor.
Why? Sex, especially sexual health, should be a welcomed subject to discuss, and the more open we are about it in college and as a society, the more educated people become about themselves and how they can take care of themselves sexually.
It may seem like “common knowledge” for people to understand sex and to have received sex education in their childhood, but it is actually not a nationwide requirement to teach sex education in K-12 public schools, and many students don’t receive that knowledge. 30 states and the District of Columbia require public schools teach sex education, 28 of which mandate both sex education and HIV education. Of those, 22 states require that if provided, sex and/or HIV education must be medically, factually or technically accurate. State definitions of “medically accurate” vary, from requiring that the department of health review curriculum for accuracy, to mandating that curriculum be based on information from “published authorities upon which medical professionals rely.”
25 states and the District of Columbia require school districts to notify parents that sexual or HIV education will be provided. That means that almost half of the states in the US are not required to provide sex education, and may choose not to teach it, and less than half of the states in the US have to teach sex education that is only medically accurate.
87.9% of the students I surveyed received sex education in K-12, that means 12.1% did not. Of those that did, most received their sex education between fifth grade and ninth grade. Although, only three students received their sex education from a licensed sex educator; the rest received it from a teacher at their school, the majority from a PE/health teacher.
Why is it important to receive sexual health education from somebody who is knowledgeable about what they are teaching? Oftentimes, the curriculum given to health teachers at these schools is the bare minimum, and the teachers likely are not passionate about teaching the subject, meaning that the students get the bare minimum of knowledge about these topics that are vitally important to their health and well-being.
“It is one of those classes that you will use in your everyday life at some point,” an anonymous surveyor said.
When a student has a question in their health class that goes against the required “curriculum” given to the health teacher who would rather be teaching wind sprints, the question often gets answered with minimal information, or not answered at all, even if the answer to that question would have helped that student and those around them. When you hire a licensed sexual health educator to teach about these topics, they are more widely covered and in more detail, meaning students have more knowledge of ways to prevent issues like STIs and are able to better understand consent and contraceptives.
Not only are questions about STIs important, but so are basic questions about feminine hygiene, periods, erections and other topics, which are often not covered until the fifth grade, meaning that those who hit puberty early are often underprepared for the changes that are happening to their bodies.
“I started my period before fourth grade which is way earlier than most girls. I was ahead of the game and felt like no one could help me because no one else was at the same stage I was. Everyone looked up to me and asked me for questions that I didn’t have answers to. I was still struggling and didn’t know how to help others or help myself,” says Trinidy Thompson, a sophomore at Mizzou.
Of the 50% of students who received sex education from their parents, the youngest age it was brought up was seven, the oldest 14. The difference between what students learn from their parents is vast, and since some schools do not even provide a sex-ed curriculum, the amount of information given to each child is different for each individual. Where are children supposed to learn about sexual health if neither their parents or their school teaches it?
One specific situation where schools do not provide appropriate resources is the topic of contraception. 98.3% of students I surveyed said that contraception was not offered at their high school. Despite this disturbing lack of provisions, very few students received an abstinence-only based education, which typically does not bring up contraceptive use. If most students’ sex education is emphasizing the importance of contraception and using it, why are they not providing the means to easily receive contraceptives? Studies have shown that those who have received abstinence-based education are actually more likely to contract STIs when they do eventually have sex, because they have not been taught about the proper contraceptives that can prevent them.
Young people ages 15 to 24 represent 25% of the sexually active population, but acquire half of all new STIs, or about 10 million new cases a year. Although most curriculums discuss contraception, they do not share where students can go to get free condoms, how to get on birth control, how to purchase Plan B, options to discuss with your doctor about IUDs or injections, or what to do if contraception does not work. This leads to a higher risk of people either not going through the process of getting contraception because it seems too daunting, or not taking the right steps when contraception is either unavailable or does not work, which leads to issues involving unplanned pregnancies and STIs.
So, if students aren’t learning about these options from their schools, where are they learning them? The answer is most commonly that they are gaining the information they have from their peers, but students may not be talking as much about these issues once they reach college.
It is important to note that most of the students I surveyed have had open conversations surrounding sex; 94.8% of students had conversations with their friends surrounding sex in high school, and 93.1% have continued to have those conversations in college. But why does that number go down at all? Although there is a decrease in the percentage of students discussing sex in college, the amount of students who are sexually active in college increased by 9% compared the amount of students who were sexually active in high school. Why does the discussion around sex decrease when more students are sexually active? It does not have to be awkward and you don’t have to share about your sex life if you don’t feel comfortable, but bringing up the topic of sex and discussing certain topics surrounding it promotes a healthy lifestyle and learning for all.
“I believe it is important to be sex positive and have conversations; whether that is with your partner, in schools, with friends, or yourself,” spoke an anonymous surveyor.
Many students haven’t actually learned more regarding sex and sex education in college, but many have noticed that discussions surrounding sex – although less frequent – become more casual once entering college. This breaks the stigma surrounding sex being seen as “dirty” or “taboo,” and helps people to realize the importance of knowledge surrounding sex education.
Websites like Cosmopolitan and Society 19 are places that are thought of to provide “tips and tricks” to be considered “sexy” and oftentimes people may turn to these magazines or online platforms to learn more about whether their sexual experiences “measure up” to others’. This is not the case; since everybody’s experiences with sex and sex education are different, it is important to recognize that while these websites are fun to look at every once in a while, but you should not base your own value on others’ experiences.
“Just because your friends are doing XYZ doesn’t mean you have to do those things as well. Coming into college, you don’t have to hookup with people just because that’s what you think college-aged people are supposed to do.” said an anonymous surveyor.
Opening up the conversation about sexual health in college can help students realize that these websites are not “the norm” of what should be expected, and each person moves at their own pace; there is no one way to do things in college, and there is no norm for whether or not one chooses to be sexually active.
So, what are some ways students can learn about sexual health in college, without turning to the depths of the internet? Most colleges provide many safe-sex resources for their students, but not enough people actually know about them. ¾ of the students who filled out the survey are not aware of the variety of different safe-sex resources on campus, and only one student has actually utilized those safe-sex resources. 60% of students beleive that if they were more knwoledgable of the safe-sex resources on campus, they would use them more.
On Mizzou’s campus, there are multiple different places students can go to learn about sexual health, as well as receive care or information about how to receive care. Among these are the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, the Student Health Center, the Women’s Center, the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center (RSVP)/Green Dot, and Planned Parenthood services. Many of these centers provide free contraceptives to students, a listening ear and valuable resources regarding sexual health and other services outside of campus that students can go to.
MU also offers a variety of classes about sexuality, sexual health, human reproduction and sex education, taught by licensed professionals, not PE teachers. These classes help students to learn more about sexual health, and advocate for them and share the information they have learned with their fellow students.
While it is disheartening to know that not every student I spoke to and surveyed received the necessary amount of sexual education that they felt they should have, the promotion of a more open discussion surrounding these issues gives students hope for a better future of more educated students, and a stronger community in college that breaks the stigma around these issues.
So, let’s talk about sex, baby. Let’s talk about it until everybody knows about proper sexual health and education, not only in K-12 schools, but in college, as well. Let’s talk about it until there is a universal definition for sexual health, because health is not up for debate. Let’s talk about sex.