An Ounce of Prevention: Why Utah Needs Comprehensive Sex Ed

In May 2018, the Salt Lake Tribune published a commentary piece from two high school students in Utah arguing that Utah’s public school system needs comprehensive sex education (C.S.E.). A few weeks later, another student responded to the piece stating the exact opposite: in a commentary article titled “Utah Students Don’t Need or Want Comprehensive Sex Education,” Heather Ellis argued that students are already receiving information about contraception and sexuality, and that a formal institution of this sort of curriculum would not only be unnecessary, but detrimental to students’ sexual and social health [1]. Despite this opinion, which is shared by at least some of Utah’s students and parents, scientific and social studies demonstrate that comprehensive sex education is the best way to ensure the health and safety of students and society—and although some aspects of Utah sex ed are lacking, the state is already beginning to increase the comprehensiveness of its sex education policy.

Utah state’s official position is that human sexuality education in public schools is “abstinence-based,” meaning that teachers are required to promote abstinence primarily, though they can provide limited instruction about contraception and the prevention of the spread of sexually transmitted infections. It should be noted that four districts—Nebo, Provo, Canyons, and Jordan—have opted for abstinence-only curricula, since the state dictates that each school district can establish its own guidelines. Still, despite these relatively broad parameters (which are stipulated on an F.A.Q. on the Utah Schools website), the Utah Administrative Code on Health Curriculum Requirements tightly restricts how teachers can instruct their classes. It dictates that the specifics of sexual intercourse or “erotic behavior,” any advocacy of sexual activity outside of marriage, or any advocacy for the use of contraceptive methods cannot be taught in Utah public schools through “instructional materials, direct instruction, or online instruction” [2]. Additionally, the state postures that “[p]arents should be the primary source of human sexuality instruction and values relating to this subject” [3]. With such strict limitations, and with the possibility that some children may not have parents and/or guardians who are willing to engage in frank conversations about sex, it is no surprise that almost two-thirds of Utahns want the option of comprehensive sex ed for public schools, according to a UtahPolicy poll [4]. Utah’s teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection (S.T.I.) rates are relatively low compared to national averages provided by the C.D.C: the state’s S.T.I. ranking is 46th in the country, and teen pregnancy is 39th. Still, any occurrence of teen pregnancy and S.T.I.s is cause for concern, and studies show that sex education actually reduces the rates of both of these undesired consequences. [5]

The benefits of comprehensive sex ed reach beyond sexual health: some have suggested that there is a link between sex education and sexual assault [6]. Learning about the body and its sexual function makes people both more aware of inappropriate conduct and less likely to act on violent and inappropriate sexual urges. Sex ed can also play an important role in helping students understand the concept of consent. Not all C.S.E. programs include consent education, but Utah recently passed a resolution requiring this type of training: the state refers to it as “refusal skills,” and Utah became the 22nd state to add this element to its statewide sex ed requirements. This curriculum is intended to teach students how to rebuff unwanted sexual advances, and it also “cover[s] what sexual harassment is and the rights of a student to report and seek counseling when they are harassed or assaulted” [7]. This action is a step in the right direction for expanding the topics that can be covered in Utah sex education classes, but is rendered somewhat less effective by the fact that teachers can’t discuss extramarital sexual activity or forms of contraception.
Benjamin Franklin famously said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and in the case of sex education in Utah, nothing could be truer. Abstinence is the most effective way to prevent unwanted pregnancy and S.T.I.s—a fact which Ellis’s commentary piece in the Tribune uses to demonstrate that abstinence-based education is the only kind of sex education needed in Utah schools. However, no matter what they are taught, teens will still (sometimes unwittingly) participate in sexual activity—and not providing them with tools to protect themselves can only have negative consequences. Educating teens properly ensures that they are prepared for whatever happens, and with refusal education, comprehensive sex ed may even provide an extra safeguard against sexual assault. Sex ed reform is complicated, but necessary to ensure the health and safety of Utah students. Though there is still work to be done, the recent refusal education implementation is a move in the right direction, and will hopefully be followed by more radical changes.

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[1] https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2018/06/14/commentary-utah-students-dont-need-or-want-comprehensive-sex-education/

[2] https://rules.utah.gov/publicat/code/r277/r277-474.htm

[3] https://www.schools.utah.gov/file/c8660182-b598-4297-ab47-144db62961ff

[4] https://utahpolicy.com/index.php/features/today-at-utah-policy/8582-poll-utahns-want-comprehensive-sex-ed-instead-of-abstinence-only

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3194801/

[6] https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-11/cums-seb111518.php

[7] https://www.deseretnews.com/article/900026035/this-new-utah-sex-ed-bill-could-help-prevent-sexual-harassment-heres-how.html

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Amelia Campbell

Amelia Campbell is a senior studying Interdisciplinary Humanities and Spanish, with a minor in Global Women’s Studies. She grew up in Seattle and served her mission in Guatemala, and finds Utah’s dry climate almost unbearable. She works for Dr. Deidre Green at the Maxwell Institute of Religion, researching feminine and maternal imagery in the philosophical writings of Søren Kierkegaard. When she is not touting the merits of interdisciplinary education and intersectional feminism, she can be found baking, reading, playing in BYU’s Balinese Gamelan Orchestra, and attempting film photography.

Amelia Campbell

Amelia Campbell is a senior studying Interdisciplinary Humanities and Spanish, with a minor in Global Women’s Studies. She grew up in Seattle and served her mission in Guatemala, and finds Utah’s dry climate almost unbearable. She works for Dr. Deidre Green at the Maxwell Institute of Religion, researching feminine and maternal imagery in the philosophical writings of Søren Kierkegaard. When she is not touting the merits of interdisciplinary education and intersectional feminism, she can be found baking, reading, playing in BYU’s Balinese Gamelan Orchestra, and attempting film photography.

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