Commentary: Why It’s Time for Real Sex Education

With HIV rates rising among young people, schools need to ditch their abstinence-only approach. Why it's time for real sex education.

Just in time for World AIDS Day, the CDC recently released data showing that a quarter of all new HIV infections in 2010 were among youth, ages 13-24. Furthermore, 45 percent of new HIV infections in men who have sex with men were Black. Other studies show Black gay men ages 13-29 have the highest annual infection rates of anyone else in America.

“We’re doing a horrible job with youth,” says Sarah Audelo, senior manager of Domestic Policy for Advocates for Youth. “This data shows how far we really have to go. Not only about HIV but sexual health in general.”

Most of us remember the horrible and useless sex education we received in school.

Graphic pictures of sexually transmitted infections. (Remember the cauliflower?) Did these images really change your behavior or desires? Uh, no. But what’s worse than those “scared straight” style approaches, is the abstinence-only approach that we know just doesn’t work.

It’s disappointing because school is one of the easiest places we can reach young folks. Yet, it’s the absolute last place where any real conversations about sexual health are happening. Politicians, parents and teachers are attaching their own moral and religious hang-ups to sex as a means of dissuading teens from having sex. But kids are having sex anyway, and not having sexual education lessons that focus on the wrong issues can have disastrous consequences.

When I asked Josh Alexander, a 26-year-old Black gay man from Mississippi, if he’d had sex education in high school, he laughed and said, “Yeah, they called it that. Our teacher was also a sport coach at the school, and we talked more about sports than we did about health.”

Alexander tested HIV-positive at age 19 in college and previously had no idea he was infected. Just two years prior, Alexander was sitting in a sex-ed class he says offered very little.

“We talk about chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and we were taught abstinence,” said Alexander, who is featured in the documentary Deep South.  “I don’t remember talking about HIV at all. We weren’t taught how to use a condom. It was kind of a ‘hands-off’ situation.”

This type of “hands-off” curriculum was the result of many Republican lawmakers’ politics and policies.

In the late 1990s, Congress exponentially increased federal funding for programs that promoted “abstinence until marriage” sex education, costing about $50 million annually. Those programs grew under George W. Bush (and are still currently funded at the federal level), and have since been proven completely ineffective in preventing or reducing rates of teen pregnancy, STDs or HIV.

To make matters worse, the “abstinence until marriage” curricula is mostly geared toward heterosexual young people and speaks very little to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youth who are increasingly at risk for HIV.

And while most states will increase their health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the prevention of HIV through health education programs remains a problem across states. With a current national discussion on education reform, which focuses on increasing science and math achievements, we’ve cut the importance of health and health literacy in the pursuit of the most basic measures of education. In November 2011, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, legislation that would provide young people with the comprehensive sexual education they need to make informed, responsible and healthy decisions in order to become sexually healthy adults and have healthy relationships.

But more than 30 years into the HIV epidemic, why is sexual health education an uphill battle? Where are our priorities?

The future of young people’s  health is in the hands of policy makers. I look at my life now as a gay Black man in his late 30s and most of my friends are HIV-positive. I have lost friends and former boyfriends to HIV, several under the age of 40 whom have died in recent years.

If we don’t begin to arm all of our youth with lifesaving comprehensive sex education, my experiences will become your experiences. We’re witnessing a generation of young vibrant people dying way too soon.

Kenyon Farrow is a writer and public health advocate. He is on staff at The Praxis Project in Washington, DC.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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  (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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