Let’s talk about sex
In an effort to be more inclusive, the ICCSD’s sex education curriculum is constantly evolving despite stigma surrounding the topic and the internet’s growing influence.
February 27, 2021
In the classroom
You walk into the sixth grade classroom, refreshed after a recess break. But now the room feels different. Your classmates go silent as the dimly lit projector reveals the elusive “puberty video.”
As years passed and you grew older, the curriculum progressed along with you, transitioning from puberty being “just around the corner” to learning about “the birds and the bees.”
The ICCSD follows guidelines outlined in the Iowa Code to craft a health curriculum that includes sex education. As one of 30 states mandating a sex education course, Iowa requires schools to teach medically accurate and age-appropriate information.
Though Iowa Code allows for an abstinence-only or abstinence-stressed curriculum to be taught, the ICCSD employs a comprehensive program that covers multiple aspects of reproductive health, such as methods of contraception and consent.
Diane Schumacher, executive director of teaching and learning at ICCSD, says this is because the ICCSD follows the National Sexuality Education Standards, which recommend a comprehensive sex education program. According to the organization, teens who recieved a comprehensive sex education were 50% less likely to report a pregnancy than those who recieved abstinence-only education.
West currently offers three trimester-long health courses: Health 1, Current and Critical Health Issues, and Personal Wellness and Fitness, all of which meet the health graduation requirement. In these courses, students learn the skills necessary to make healthy and safe life choices.
Paras Bassuk ’21 took health his freshman year and believes he received a thorough education. He primarily associates his positive experience to his teacher inviting community members of various organizations like the United Action for Youth and the Rape Victims Advocacy Program to expand upon the curriculum.
“I think the class that I learned the most in my freshman year was health,” Bassuk said. “What [my teacher] did was source her curriculum from the community and make it relevant to Iowa City and relevant to the students in the classroom, and I think she really took initiative there.”
However, Bassuk worries a lack of standardization surrounding teaching methods and resources may lead to different learning outcomes among students.
“We can’t predict what a student is going to go through with their sex ed experience, and that means that we have a population, generation after generation, that is not receiving consistent information to allow them to operate as adults,” Bassuk said. “If [sex education is] not required or standardized, there’s potential for huge gaps in people’s knowledge.”
To combat this, in 2019, the ICCSD formally partnered with UAY and RVAP to provide five days of specialized lessons covering topics ranging from LGBTQ+ identities to consent and healthy relationships.
“Some of those topics can tend to be a little challenging for teachers to deliver, so we wanted to ensure that was a consistent experience for our kids across all schools,” Schumacher said. “That’s why we wanted to bring in some community experts.”
One such outside health educator is Stanzy Scheetz, who works for UAY. Before 2019, her organization would reach out to teachers who would individually decide whether they would allow health educators like Scheetz to serve as guest speakers. The teachers could also select which topics would be covered.
“The unfortunate thing is when the teachers are the gatekeepers, sometimes they’d be like, ‘Come talk about birth control and STIs and then not about LGBTQ+ [health],” Scheetz said.
Jade Spicher ’23 took the course in 2020 and didn’t feel adequately represented in the curriculum as a bisexual individual. She recalls the heteronormative nature of the course leaving her with a lack of knowledge about topics that affected her community.
“When I asked my teacher a question, they told me to Google it because they had no idea … It made me feel a little upset because you feel like you can go to the teacher for almost anything, and they’re just like this person of great knowledge, and they can give you any answer,” Spicher said. “But when they told me to Google it … I just felt like they were telling me off.”
Spicher hopes that in the future, the curriculum will cover the LGBTQ+ community more in-depth.
“When it’s not in the curriculum, I feel like it’s going back to the olden days. It’s almost like it’s trying to push us back in the closet … We need to learn about these things and other people do too,” Spicher said. “If I have to learn about straight people and their health things … why can’t straight people learn about how gay people do it?”
Similarly, Emily Moore ‘21, who took health class her freshman year, was disappointed by the course’s limited conversation regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. As a result, she had to educate herself on the topic independently, with a primary resource she used being COLORS club. As West High’s gender and sexuality alliance club, COLORS helps inform members about various sexual health issues often neglected in standard health curriculums.
“Going to COLORS helped me a lot … I feel like it would maybe be helpful to also learn things in health class because it’s a wider audience, so if people don’t have the time to go to COLORS or are embarrassed for any reason, then they could get the information they needed just by being in class,” Moore said.
Paul Rundquist, who currently teaches health at West, believes teachers should provide as much guidance as possible to students, whether that be directing them to a credible source on the internet or incorporating their questions into the curriculum. He hopes students feel comfortable approaching him for questions instead of having to turn to the internet independently.
“It’s important for me to try and help that student find as much information as they can about that particular topic and assist them,” Rundquist said. “That’s my job as a teacher, and as teachers we don’t always have the right answer, but I feel it’s our job to help our students find those answers.”
Charisa Wotherspoon is a health educator for RVAP. During her lessons, she sheds light on communities that have historically been underrepresented, such as those who identify as asexual.
“I think it’s important that we do not erase those identities,” Wotherspoon said. “I try to remember to be like ‘you know what? Not everyone is going to have sexual relationships.’”
Wotherspoon also teaches the topic of consent and healthy relationships in an effort to promote safety and decrease instances of intimate partner violence. She feels this information is imperative regardless of whether students are in romantic relationships or not.
“The reality is consent is a phenomenon that we all practice every day in all sorts of contexts our whole lives,” Wotherspoon said. “[It] needs to be understood.”
With the newly instituted UAY and RVAP partnership and curriculum updates, the district continues to work to address these issues and provide a more comprehensive health education.
“We’ve been doing some work with our non-binary students and talking about sexual orientation, but this is probably the first time that we are making that more formalized and ensuring that all kids have access to that information,” Schumacher said. “Now we know that we need to provide that information to everyone.”
Left to their own devices
A question arises, but instead of being scribbled on a slip of paper and dropped into an anonymous question box at the front of the classroom, it’s answered with the click of a search button.
In today’s digital age, a simple Google search can pull up billions of results in milliseconds. When students are left with unanswered questions, many, like Spicher, turn to the internet for answers. In a world where information is quite literally always at one’s fingertips, Spicher attributes the inclination to rely on online sources of information to embarrassment.
“As kids, we believe a lot of anything on the internet, which we definitely shouldn’t,” Spicher said. “Kids will go on there for anything if they don’t feel comfortable asking someone because they’re scared. I know I do it sometimes because we’re all scared of just saying something out loud.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, Spicher is not alone. In 2010, a study conducted with 13 to 19-year-olds found 19% of heterosexual youth, 40% of questioning youth, 65% of bisexual youth and 78% of lesbian/gay/queer youth reported that they had used the internet to look up sexual health information in the past year.
Wotherspoon worries that these various influences, when not vetted for reliability or bias, can prove harmful for teens.
“We’re surrounded by information coming in from all different sources and in general, the messages we receive teach us to perpetuate the status quo,” Wotherspoon said. “And the status quo is one out of four girls being sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday.”
This is why Scheetz believes it’s essential students receive a proper sex education. However, she understands questions may arise outside of class, and in those cases, she encourages students to seek out diverse sources of reliable information.
“If people are pursuing information on their own, that’s great,” Scheetz said. “But if they’re doing so because they got left in the dark, I think that’s a problem.”
With greater access to media comes an increased access to explicit content online at a younger age.
According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, 42% of adolescents reported exposure to pornography online, with 66% of that number describing this as unwanted. The Witherspoon Institute found this repeated exposure to explicit content can normalize sexual abuse and disregard consent as a vital step in sexual relationships.
Wotherspoon recognizes that because of these high viewership numbers, pornography may act as a source of education for many. However, she urges viewers to think critically about how it may inaccurately portray healthy relationships.
”It’s important to realize it isn’t a blueprint,” Wotherspoon said. “This is somebody selling a product; it’s not like a how-to manual of how to have healthy sexual relationships.”
She finds this to be particularly true for members of the LGBTQ+ community, as pornography is often tailored to the interests of cisgender men. As a result, she hopes to emphasize what healthy relationships and consent should look like in addition to teaching students how to find and effectively utilize reliable sources of information.
“When you get to the point that you’re having romantic relationships and or sexual relationships, everyone’s different, so you need to learn from each other by open communication,” Wotherspoon said.
Iowa Code requires schools to provide an option for students to “opt out” of health class. To do so, students must have a parent or guardian express religious reasons for taking their child out of the course. According to Schumacher, an average of 30 West students a year utilize the waiver.
“Because we think it’s an important topic, and we think it’s important for all students to have access to, I would want all kids to take our health classes,” Schumacher said. “However, I know that … students can get accurate information from their parents too. If that’s happening in the cases of the waivers, then that’s fabulous too.”
Bassuk believes taking the sex education course is essential, and much of the hesitation may stem from a feeling of discomfort surrounding the subject.
“I think there’s some sort of expectation that teens will be uncomfortable talking about sex and sexual health,” Bassuk said. “My guess is that that contributes to why some people opt out of it.”
This was the case for one sophomore, who is choosing to remain anonymous. Following what many of their friends were doing, they wanted to opt out to avoid the perceived awkwardness of the course. However, when trying to get their parents to sign the waiver, they were given a choice: learn about sex education at home or take the class at school. The source chose the latter and took health third trimester of 2020.
The course starts off with topics surrounding mental health, drugs, alcohol and nutrition. However, once COVID-19 hit and online Zoom classes began, the source feels the topic of sex education was missed entirely.
“I completed pretty much the entirety of ninth grade health class by spending 25 minutes filling out worksheets about drugs, alcohol and sports … We never actually did anything related to sex ed whatsoever,” the source said. “According to the school, I have been 100% educated in the necessary information regarding the fundamental processes of my body and the bodies of my opposite sex classmates, which isn’t true at all.”
The source has learned the majority of their sex education knowledge from watching the Netflix show “Big Mouth.” Though the cartoon covers puberty and sexual relationships, among other similar topics, they still worry this gap in their education may prove problematic.
“I feel like I’m missing out on really important stuff, which I will have to figure out on my own and maybe lead to embarrassment, miscommunication [and] misunderstanding in my future relationships,” the source said. “I, and dozens of my classmates, slipped through the cracks of the school system and could be in a constant, humiliating struggle in our relationships for years to come.”
Scheetz is well aware of the impacts a subpar sex education can have. Growing up, the curriculum she received was primarily fear-based and abstinence only.
“It took me quite a long time to learn even the things that I’m teaching as an adult,” Scheetz said. “It felt like I was missed, that I didn’t get the information that was pertinent to me and that was important to me, so I had to kind of learn all of this on my own.”
Because of this, she centers her lessons around providing factual information and encouraging students to make their own choices.
“We want students to feel empowered and have the information and resources necessary to make decisions that they feel proud and good about [and] feel less shame and stigma,” Scheetz said.
Though efforts are being made to reduce the stigma surrounding sexual health, Spicher feels it still plays a large role in preventing these conversations.
“[People] are in fear of saying something wrong because maybe they don’t know much about the topic, so they’re scared,” Spicher said. “They’re scared of hurting someone’s feelings or judging them in a wrong way.”
Despite observing students typically feeling uncomfortable speaking with adults regarding topics of sexual health, for Rundquist, the virtual environment has facilitated conversations he feels students may have previously shied away from.
“I have found it interesting teaching the course online,” Rundquist said. “Students are more willing to ask questions using the chat box, which I encourage. We’ve had several good discussions.”
To facilitate conversations and discussions during class, he focuses on connecting with students to foster a comfortable and safe classroom environment.
“[I try] to build relationships with my students and help them to become more comfortable with me. That is so important because if we’re unable to do that, then it’s that much more difficult to have classroom discussions,” Rundquist said. “As the students learn more about me and as they realize that I’m just very open about my life, it seems to help them to open up a little bit more.”
Schumacher hopes productive conversations and the updated curriculum can work to alleviate the stigma surrounding sex.
“We just need to normalize the topics,” Schumacher said. “Sexual health has been a taboo topic for probably many families for years, and we just need to get to the point that that’s a normal thing that we talk about and ask questions [about.]”
“We think its important to educate about sex and relationships from a sex positive lens,” Wotherspoon said. “We want people to realize that healthy sexual relationships are a good thing.”