Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Sex-ed needed

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Sex education in Arkansas is bonkers. Ginny Monk's recent article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, "85 percent of schools in Arkansas tell kids to say no to sex" reports the results of a survey of all of the sex education being taught at all school districts in the state. With the exception of a few bright spots, including the existence of local groups lobbying for implementing comprehensive sex education statewide, too many schools are either ignoring the subject all together or pushing abstinence-based sex education. Anyone who really remembers what those teenage years are like or who spends real time around teenagers understands abstinence-only education is a pitiful exercise in futility and the statistics reflect that. Monk's article points out that Arkansas has one of the highest teen birth rates in the nation and that schools are using curriculum that includes descriptions of boys being like waffles and girls being like spaghetti, virginity being as precious as a diamond ring and youths who are "uneducated bunnies."

The bunny part is spot on. Although, I wouldn't call these youths "uneducated." I'd call them, to borrow a term from Lauryn Hill, "miseducated," especially if they get their sex education from other kids on the school bus. Most of the naughty things I learned growing up, I learned on the bus. Usually on the ride home from school. Not sure if it was because everyone was still half asleep in the mornings or if the kids somehow had an innate understanding of the impropriety of blue language early in the day. Either way, the ride home seemed to get pretty salty sometimes.

When I was in seventh grade, I learned how to flip the bird on the bus. I'd watched people doing it on television and around town, and it seemed like the thing to master, but the few times I tried it alone in my room, I couldn't get it too look right. The older kids on the bus effortlessly flipped each other off constantly, so I began to really pay attention to what they were doing with their fingers and realized it was less about what the middle finger was doing and more about having the proper bend in the side fingers. My seatmate, who also struggled, practiced with me until, a week later, we were middle finger flipping professionals. Since language at my house was heavily patrolled by my mom, especially when friends were visiting, mastering this silent insult was a game-changer.

In addition to obscene gestures, sex was a common topic on the bus. Kids teasing other kids about doing things to each other using words I had never heard and acts that, frankly, seemed entirely impossible to me in my naivety. The bus was the first place I saw a condom. It was the first place I saw a pornographic magazine. It was the first place I saw two people French kissing in real life. I learned a lot on the bus. I'll tell you where I didn't learn much: sex education. I remember our science teacher talking about menstruation and childbirth, but if I had any real, substantial quality sex education, I cannot remember it. I'd imagine like many Arkansans, a coach reluctantly taught sex-ed as part of health class. Whatever they taught me at school was overshadowed by what I learned on the bus.

Now, I don't know if the bus is such an influential place anymore. Most kids have a phone with access to the internet 24-7. Kids can watch movies and shows on demand that used to only be on late at night. But, according to Monk's article, chances are the kids are still not learning the science and facts at school or at home they need to make good, smart decisions about their own bodies and health.

And, by good, smart decisions, I'm not talking abstinence. Abstinence is fine if that is what is best for that person, but to somehow elevate abstinence above safe sex and science is a problem. Religion needs to be kept out of school-based sex education. This is a health and science issue. Not a moral one. No more talk of virginity being precious and special by teachers. What does that say to the girl or boy in the class who was a victim of sexual assault? That they are worthless? Can we also skip the abstinence and purity pledges at school? They are ineffective, creepy and didn't work for the Jonas Brothers and Bristol Palin. We don't need our kids making any promises or pledges to teachers and school counselors about what they plan to do with their vaginas and penises and other body parts. Just give the kids the facts, the tools for safe sex, and let them decide for themselves what they want to do. It is way past time for comprehensive sex education at every public school in Arkansas. We have to teach our kids about the birds and bees just as we teach them about science and math, and I think we can all agree, the bus is no place for that type of learning.

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