Colorado sex ed, then and now

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f any of your Facebook friends have an innate sense for a good political info-graphic, you’ve probably seen this stunner, “Why We Need Sex Ed Now,” from Public Health Degree kicking around your corner of the webs. As the title suggests, the graph brings together national and state-specific data calling out the U.S. for having the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually-transmitted-infections contraction in the developed world.

Reproductive Health Education

The report specifically calls out Texas as “the worst of the worst” offender when it comes to lack of comprehensive sex education for teens. The result is that 62 out of every 1,000 teenage girls in Texas birth offspring.

Colorado, according to the info-graphic, is among the suspect “abstinence promoting” herd. If pregnancy and disease stats are the measure — and they seem a good measure — teaching abstinence as sex ed is usually a red flag that a state could be doing better for its teens.

I had what I remember as relatively decent sex ed in my Colorado Springs Palmer High School health class, circa 2007. We watched “the slide show” of gross STI-infected parts. We watched a video of a woman giving birth. We had a series of wonderful and engaging speakers, including a man living with HIV who conversationally and potently educated us about the realities of contraction: playing basketball? No. Having unprotected sex with someone who swears they’re on the pill? Possibly.

We even heard a moving talk about teen suicide risk. I remember that speaker vividly because he had my friend stand up at the front of the class and kept handing him stones of different sizes to hold. It took ages for anyone sitting at their desk to wake up and ask if we could help the guinea pig hold the growing pile of rocks. When it looks like someone’s carrying more than they can bear, the first and most important thing to do is to ask if you can help, was the message, and and I haven’t forgotten it. 

What I have forgotten is whether or not we talked about how to actually use contraception. I don’t remember any banana routine. I don’t remember looking into the many-pearled oyster shell of a pill packet or hearing the instruction “you must take these every day and in order for them to work.” I don’t remember walking home with a “just in case, god forbid, you need it” free condom burning a hole in my pocket. I do remember that abstinence was mightily emphasized.


Okay, it wasn’t exactly a scene from Mean Girls, but reporting from The Colorado Springs Independent supports my own memory — I’m a living, breathing, and as-yet-un-impregnated product of “abstinence-centered” sex education. Note that “abstinence-centered” is different than “abstinence-only” education.

“If you teach kids it’s healthier to wait for sex, I don’t really see how that can be called abstinence only,” said Dr. Diane Foley of the Focus on the Family-linked organization Education for Life, which has provided sex-ed workshops to Palmer High’s school district 11.

“The trend nationally is to use the language of sexual risk avoidance versus sexual risk reduction, which offers a clearer picture about what is being taught,” Foley added.

Foley said her organization’s programing approaches sex ed from the same point of view that any educator might approach discussing high-risk behavior with teens.

“If you look at the way we approach underage drinking in health class we teach that a) it’s against the law, but b) it’s also harmful to teens because their blood-brain barrier hasn’t been fully developed yet,” said Foley. “So what we say to them is, ‘The healthiest choice for you is that you don’t start drinking and if you’re already drinking, that you stop.'”

Foley emphasized that, when it comes to teens and sex, the risks are even higher.

“The issue with sex is that at there are more consequences than just physical ones. If you’re looking at it from that perspective, it’s best that teens delay the onset of sexual activity in order to decrease the number of sexual parters they have.”

Although she says abstinence is an important part of sex education, Foley was firm in saying that abstinence-only programs “have no place” in sex ed courses. She said her organization does teach about contraception, particularly because many teens are already sexually involved, but that they also emphasize that even barrier methods of contraception are far more effective at preventing pregnancies than they are at preventing skin-to-skin transmission of STIs like HPV and herpes.

Everything Foley says rings pretty familiar to me. I do remember hearing, over and over, in sex ed that abstinence was the only way to 100 percent avoid pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. I also remember, vaguely, statistics about just how effective various forms of birth control are — i.e. condoms prevent pregnancies 98 percent of the time when used correctly, while pulling out works just 70 percent, etc.

What I don’t remember, and hey, it might be a personal problem, was learning in class just how to use a condom correctly.

Despite Public Health Degree’s concerns with states like Colorado that generally offer abstinence-centered programs and despite the fact that I didn’t learn how to put on a condom until my teen-age years were officially over, teen pregnancy rates do appear to be dropping both nationally and in our state.

When I was taking sex ed, a little more than 40 of every 1,000 teen (15-19 years old) girls in Colorado became pregnant. That number dropped to under 30 by 2011 and last year State Representative Crisanta Duran of Northwest Denver sponsored a sex ed reform bill that will offer schools and districts extra funding if they teach comprehensive and culturally sensitive sex ed courses.

“I think it’s problematic that there has been such a focus on abstinence,” said Duran. “I’m absolutely supportive of abstinence being part of any curriculum, but the reality is that there are young people engaging in sexual activity and young women are getting pregnant much younger than they would have chosen.”

Duran said that high rates of teen pregnancy in poor and latino communities, and the correlation between pregnancy and dropping out in particular, motivated her to carry last session’s bill. The legislation incentivizes comprehensive sex ed and shifts Colorado’s “opt-in” policy to an “opt-out” policy in schools where comprehensive sex ed is provided.

In addition to offering more funds and resources for comprehensive sex ed, Duran’s bill also puts new weight on inclusive courses.

“The bill specifically states that curricula should be inclusive of LGBTQ and immigrant communities,” said Duran. Adding that much of this move was based on her fellow state Representative Dominick Moreno’s testimony about his own experiences in sex ed. The reform bill was debated for 6 hours in the House and, during that time, Moreno testified that, as an openly gay teen, he never felt his sex ed courses in Commerce City applied to or involved him.

“We wanted to be inclusive of people with different backgrounds because at the end of the day the bill is about improving the health of young people,” said Duran. “It’s about helping teens to make good decisions.”

You can learn more about sexual health in our state at Colorado Youth Matter. The group’s material includes a fantastic interactive map showing teen pregnancy, STI contraction rates and health resources.