Let’s Talk About Sex: Tales From a High School Health Teacher

I have spent the last 12 years of my teaching career talking about something that most people avoid talking about with kids. Sex. Just mentioning the word incites giggles and nervous shuffling of papers in a classroom of high school freshman. As a health educator, I have taught “Sex Ed” to thousands of kids in our area over the past decade. And I love it. Some people may think that talking about sex with teenagers would be weird or uncomfortable, but I think it’s necessary. So, let’s talk about sex and your middle or high school student.

What type of program does my school child’s offer?

Typically, there are two different types of sexual education programs that public schools offer. The first type of program, usually in more conservative districts, is Abstinence-Only education. These types of program do not teach about contraception, pregnancy, or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The second type of program is Abstinence-Based. This type of program teaches about contraception, pregnancy and STDs. The underlying message is that the only 100% way of preventing pregnancy and STDs is abstinence. All materials (textbooks, handouts, videos etc.) are approved by an advisory committee of parents, students, teachers, and community members.

What types of things are covered?

It really depends on what type of class your child is enrolled in. Either way, we don’t just talk about sex. I have taught reproductive health in a traditional Health class, but also in Child Development and Human Relations courses. The material is a little different. For example, during Child Development, we spend a lot of time discussing pregnancy and childbirth but not so much time talking about STDs unless they have the ability to be transmitted from mother to child.

In a traditional health class, we cover reproductive health, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, healthy relationships, communication skills, nutrition, and mental health. The curriculum changes based upon grade level as well. Students typically take Health a few times throughout their academic career but that depends on your school district.

Who Teaches Health Class?

Health is a required class in the State of Michigan. All students who graduate from a Michigan High School are required to take one semester of Health, unless they are a Personal Curriculum student or are seeking a Certificate of Completion versus a traditional diploma. Depending on your school district, it dictates what department Health is a part of. In my experience, I taught Health as part of the Family and Consumer Science Department (modern day Home Ec). But sometimes, Health is part of the Science Department or Physical Education. It varies district by district, but Health is always taught by a certified, highly qualified teacher. 

Can I Opt My Student Out?

As a parent, you have the right to opt your student out of Health class. You can opt them out of the entire class, or you can just have them opt out for certain portions of the class. While this is your choice as a parent, I feel that there is a need for students to learn this information. Most of the time, they are not getting a comprehensive health education at home from parents or guardians. “The talk” is a dreaded part of parenthood. By having your child enrolled in a health class at school, it opens the door and takes the heat out of some of the uncomfortable parts of the birds and the bees conversation.

There is something so much less embarrassing talking to a virtual stranger about sex rather than the person who actually had sex to bring you into existence, i.e. your mom or dad. So, if you decide to opt your student out of the reproductive health unit, you should expect and be prepared to answer a lot of questions.

What are the benefits of these programs?

The proof is in the statistics. Communities that have abstinence-only programs have higher rates of teen pregnancy and STDs than communities that offer abstinence-based education. There is a common misconception that abstinence-based programs are giving teens the green light to have sex wherever and whenever they want—that is simply not the case. These programs show the realities of engaging in certain behaviors, they don’t glamorize it. Teenagers are going to engage in risky behavior, we should at least give them the tools to protect themselves. Not teaching them is like going out into a rainstorm without an umbrella.

Regardless of the nature of your student, teenagers are curious when it comes to reproductive and sexual health. They ask good questions and are attentive listeners. By promoting health education, reproductive health, and body positivity we are giving our young people tools that will help them the rest of their days. By avoiding the topic or not being completely transparent we are doing a disservice to our children and promoting guilt and shame in regard to talking about sex. Remember, when you talk about sex with your children, be age appropriate, listen to their questions, and let them guide the conversation.

Do you talk about sex with your teenagers? What tips do you have for other parents? It’s important to talk about all aspects, including What I Want My Kids to Know About Sexual Assault.


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