The University of Arizona is home to a passionate chapter of VOX: Voices for Planned Parenthood, where the new generation of reproductive justice activists gains hands-on experience empowering community members with the knowledge they need to make healthy choices. Their current mission is to expand access to comprehensive sexuality education in Arizona, a state with a high teenage pregnancy rate thanks to abstinence-only policies.
Many VOX members are alumni of Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), and these college students have returned to their old stomping grounds to demand a better education for Tucson’s youth. We asked some of them to share their memories of piecing together the mysteries of human sexuality in an environment in which the topic was shrouded in secrecy.
Anna Keene says:
I went to TUSD schools for middle and high school, both with somewhat present sex ed, but not very comprehensive. I remember being separated by boys and girls, talking about weird smells and periods and not too much else. One of the few lectures we received is vividly fresh in my memory: my friend’s mom (who was also our school counselor) explaining to us that there were “different” kinds of sex, and anal sex was something dangerous, and stressing that “once you kiss someone, they are no longer just your friend,” and that condoms are like gloves you put on your privates to keep them clean.
Sadly, for Arizona students, this is more education than some receive. In high school, health class was required, but viewed as the dreaded course you could replace with the preachy online Mormon one if you were lucky. By the time most students took the health class, they had probably already experimented once or twice with the things the class warns you about, like casual sex and fast food. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon the Planned Parenthood Teen Advocacy Group tabling down the street from school, sparking my passion for reproductive justice at 14. Once I began volunteering, Planned Parenthood’s education and resources gave me the tools I needed to take control of my future and become a “sexpert” for my peers.
The idea that the knowledge for taking care of our bodies physically, mentally, and socially can just be covered in a single semester or online class, set up with a scary, cheesy, and intimidating curriculum that doesn’t have to include factual information, is terrifying. The inconsistency needs to change, because a student’s future shouldn’t be risked by a lack of responsibility from their school district to educate them.
Maria Dominguez says:
I have been a TUSD student nearly all my life, and although I’ve had many positive experiences as a student, sex ed is not one of them. I remember in elementary school, the boys and the girls in my class were separated into different rooms and we were taught about our developing bodies. We learned that we were going to get our periods, grow pubic hair, and start smelling different — that was about it. Throughout middle school I had absolutely no sex ed; it wasn’t until 7th grade that I properly understood what sex was, and it was only because a boy in my class told me. I was horrified; it seemed like such a huge part of life, everyone would talk about sex, but I never knew how it happened. Ever since this experience I was very curious to know what else I didn’t know about my own body.
In high school I expected to have much more comprehensive sex ed, considering most teenagers are sexually active, but unfortunately we did not. Although all students are required to take health to graduate, the sex ed we received was not very comprehensive. In my class, only one week of the semester was spent on talking about sex and safety, but my teacher only went over a few STDs, unwanted pregnancies, condoms, and practicing abstinence.
After the very brief week of sex ed in my health class, I felt very dissatisfied: This was the last sex education I was ever required to take and I learned almost nothing. I still had so many questions. One of my questions was, “What are female condoms?” I had no idea what it was or how it was used so I decided to look it up. The first website that popped up was plannedparenthood.org, so that’s the one I clicked on. Instantly my question was answered with a video, informative paragraph, and resources on where to find them. I spent an hour looking at the Planned Parenthood website and learning more about sex and my own body than I would’ve ever expected. This is the first time I had ever felt satisfied with sex ed. I felt empowered, as if I finally had control over my own body.
Lia Ossanna says:
I attended TUSD schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. The schools I was fortunate enough to attend were unique, academic, and arts driven, and presented me with many incredible opportunities, so I know that our district has a lot to offer. However, in terms of sex education, TUSD does not provide a comprehensive curriculum, which could help its students so much. The furthest extent of my sex ed experience ended in fifth grade when we took a Family Life class. I was not required to take a health class in middle school, and the health course I took in high school only addressed drug and substance abuse issues.
We can look at the statistics and clearly see that abstinence-only sexual education is not effective. The rates of teen pregnancies in Arizona are even scarier than the notorious pictures of STDs students are shown. Ignorance clearly does not lead to prevention. Furthermore, sex education that only focuses on heterosexual couples is prejudiced and uninclusive, which should not be tolerated in TUSD schools.
Sex education has a bad reputation of using scare tactics and narrow world views. But even worse, sex education is laced with shame to make us feel uncomfortable and afraid regarding anything serious about sex. Sex ed should never be used as a weapon to make students feel ashamed or defiant about their actions and choices.
Our societal attitude toward sex needs to change. Growing up, I didn’t receive proper education and in turn was taught through my peers and the media that sex was something dirty, because it was a taboo subject. As a child, sex was equivalent to curse words; something bad and too old for us to understand, but something that we were exposed to nonetheless. I understand this necessary culture change cannot come from just a few people, and it will not happen all at once. But TUSD should be held accountable for their own responsibility in bringing forward these new attitudes. Instead, TUSD is often hindering improvement, and allowing its students to live and learn in an environment full of inaccuracies, misconceptions, and contradicting opinions and morals.
The dangers of lacking sexual education goes beyond just teen pregnancy rates and STDs. It affects all of us. I obviously learned what sex was, and I did not get pregnant in high school while given an abstinence-only education. But this approach still did me harm. I should not be mistaken for a success story. TUSD’s lack of sex education meant I didn’t even understand my basic biologic functions. And worse, I grew up confused and ashamed about my sexuality, and alienated from my own body. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. The mixed messages I received from my education implied sex was either cheap, or like some kind of strange clinical procedure.
Sexuality is a part of our overall health. Working with Planned Parenthood puts me in the exact culture I hope will one day extend to all of our society, including our schools. We treat sexuality with respect, and not as a discomforting, controversial, and shameful subject. We all need to move beyond our own personal barriers and stigmas toward sexual education and grant students the right to comprehensive sex education, because clearly the system we have now is failing.
Sierra Yamanaka says:
I attended TUSD schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. I was fortunate enough to be in the GATE program for elementary and middle school and attend University High. While the academic programs were invaluable, the sex education was not. I only received a total of maybe 10 days of sex ed over my entire education in TUSD. In elementary school we were separated by gender and taught about our bodies changing. I don’t remember what was said, only that everyone was grossed out and embarrassed about the whole thing.
By the time that middle school had rolled around, a few days during P.E. were spent talking about puberty and hormones, but I don’t remember much being covered apart from being told that abstaining from sex was the only way to make sure nothing bad came from it — STDs, pregnancy, etc. The lack of information I received scared me into believing that if I were to have sex, I would catch a disease or get pregnant. I did not know there were other methods to keep me safe.
In high school, health was required, but could be taken as a two-week course over the summer. Only one day (or less) was spent on the topic, and we were shown pictures of STDs with warnings that this could be us if we were to have sex. Once again, scare tactics were used, rather than real information. It was obvious that the teacher did not want to be there talking about this, and the students, stuck in the basement of the gym on a summer afternoon, certainly did not want to be there. It made for an environment that was uncomfortable and did not promote good learning or safe sexual habits.
If students can count on their teachers to provide them with facts about world history, economics, and math, why can’t they count on them for facts about sex as well?
Brigette Villasenor says:
I went to TUSD schools for elementary school, middle school, and high school. I remember being in a room with all of the fifth graders at my school and we were all separated by gender. I remember watching multiple videos on periods and how we bleed, but by this time in my childhood I had already gone through the scare of bleeding from down there and not knowing what was going on. So, this was clarification for me, but at the same time I knew what was currently happening. I remember one of the videos was about a young girl being at a sleepover and having the mom of the host secretly tell the girl that it was OK to be bleeding from down there, not to flush pads, and that no one had to know you were on your period. That’s about as much as I learned in elementary school.
In middle school, I didn’t have any sex ed. I didn’t know what sex was and I had so many questions I was afraid to ask. So many of my peers claimed to be sexually active and one even pretended to be pregnant. I remember the whole school was in awe because supposedly she had had sex one week, was pregnant a week later, and then had a miscarriage another. All of the kids were talking about this rumor, even the teachers knew, but no one taught us anything or straightened anything out. Now I know this was a lie that she had told, but at the time I was so clueless as to how a person got pregnant. I was clueless about what sex was.
In high school, we were required to take a half of a semester of health, but it was one of the only half-semester classes offered, so if you got put into health in the school year, your second half of the year was in a random class that you ended up being way behind in. So, I decided to take it over the summer. I wanted to get ahead and not disrupt my learning. When I did take it, I was surprised to learn that the majority of the class was about social health. We watched The Breakfast Club to talk about social health between classmates and friends, we talked about how you need exercise and you need to eat healthy. That was the extent of my focused two weeks in health class. The final for the class was a paper on whether we liked the class or not. Sure I got an easy A, but the rest of my sex ed was spent Googling things like, “Is my vagina supposed to do that?,” “How does one get pregnant?,” and “What is sex?” Once I got through all the porn and disgusting Internet spam, I found people like me. I found sex ed videos by experts and found websites that made up for my 12 years of wasted opportunity for someone to teach me.
The TUSD school board will meet at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8, in the multipurpose room at Duffy Community Center on 5145 E. 5th Street in Tucson. Check TUSD’s website for more information. VOX will be there to demand a better education for Tucson’s students. Join us and make your voice heard!