California Teens: Our Schools Need Sex Education

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

by Manie Grewal, Policy and Organizing Manager, Forward Together

When I moved to California about a year ago and started working on sex ed justice at Forward Together, I was floored that the state did not mandate comprehensive sex ed. As a Midwesterner, I saw California as the mecca of progressive policy but I learned quickly every state has its challenges. Through my work with young people in advocating for AB 329, The California Healthy Youth Act, it's clear sex education is a huge missed opportunity.

California teens are calling on Governor Brown to sign the Healthy Youth Act
Carrying around a potato baby wasn't just weird -- it
taught me nothing  about parenthood or healthy sexuality.
We all have a classroom sex ed story, whether it be the awkward teacher, giggles from your peers, or watching a live birth video. As a 7th grader I had a potato baby that I named Gertrude and “cared for” to simulate parenthood - an ineffective activity to understand what it means to be a parent. In high school, I recall my sex ed going beyond the abstinence-only instruction, but still leaving me with lots of questions about my body and what sexual activity meant for me. Growing up in an Indian home, there was no space to talk about sex due to cultural barriers and I felt judged by my healthcare providers. I vividly remember asking a doctor about certain sexual activity, and I was judged for asking the question. This only made me feel shameful and ignorant, shutting down any opportunity for an educational conversation. Due to poor sex ed, I made reactive sexual health decisions as a young adult, and these experiences really feed my passion for sex ed justice.

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Potato babies and shame is no way to teach our young people. AB 329 is one piece of a long battle for sex ed justice for all Californian youth - a critical starting place for districts and schools. It mandates that California public schools teach comprehensive sex ed and specifies that there must be instruction on healthy relationships, on top of including information on sexuality and gender. And it’s clear that young people are hungry for this information. Romy, one of the young activists I’ve worked with shared her experience in the classroom when it came to healthy relationships:

Rape and consent were never mentioned in my class. When alcohol was brought up during a discussion on sex, it was said that you shouldn’t have sex while under the influence and that it was your responsibility to know that. More importantly, it was your responsibility to not be coerced into having sex while drunk. That was it. This is a dangerous topic to skim over and not dive into. Peer pressure and sexual harassment are a common problem in the teenage world that ironically does not get addressed by the adults that are supposed to be leading us through that exact world. AB 329 promises to provide a focus on healthy attitudes, healthy behaviors, and healthy relationships. This will make it so that this subject can no longer be skipped over with a feeling of taboo, but taught so that students learn it is not your responsibility to not be raped or harassed, for them to realize it is never the victim’s fault, and to know that communication is an important part to a happy, healthy sexual experience.
Another inspiring youth I’ve worked with who self-identifies as queer and trans named Cal shared how they felt invisibilized in the classroom:
Being transgender also made sex ed more difficult. The very language used to discuss sex and genitals can be very isolating. When the class had to talk about “female” [female sex assigned at birth] anatomy and “female” [female sex assigned at birth] puberty, I was extremely uncomfortable because while the information provided applied to my genitalia and physical body, it did not match my gender identity. When the room split up into boys and girls I stuck out like a sore thumb, unsure of where to go since neither category reflected who I was. Nobody really understood that. I wanted and needed education that was relevant to my gender, my body, and my sexual orientation and I had to fight to receive it, and even then didn’t get all the information I needed.
AB 329 is on Governor Brown’s desk right now. As seen by these youth stories, the classroom today has even more gaps in its sexual reproductive health education than it did 20 years ago, when I had to carry around Gertrude. Today’s school climate is different with wide access to social media and a myriad of ways for harassment. Schools are a critical place for youth to receive accurate health education, especially for low-income communities of color who experience inequitable access to health care, health disparities, systemic discrimination and poverty.

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With the help of passionate young people Forward Together was successfully able to persuade the Oakland school district to offer better sex ed for 9th graders. But all Californian youth, no matter where they live, should receive comprehensive sex ed. So this week, Romy and Cal are coming with me to Sacramento to urge Governor Brown to sign AB 329.

Please help us urge Governor Brown to pass AB 329 to ensure all Californian youth receive comprehensive, accurate, and inclusive sex ed to make their own decisions about their lives, bodies, gender, and sexuality.

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