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Arizona's students need comprehensive sexuality education

I remember sitting through those interminable fourth-period biology classes. My stomach growling in anticipation of lunch, I was self-consciously filling in unlabeled diagrams of sexual anatomy when I wanted to be filling my belly. Meanwhile, I kept my head down as the class bullies made crude comments. Sex education, especially during the already awkward years of junior high, could be uncomfortable and embarrassing.

But I also remember the instructor modeling open communication and debunking the more fanciful myths my classmates had gleaned from their mothers' copies of Cosmo. I remember a photocopied inventory of contraceptive methods, listed in order of efficacy, with abstinence reigning supreme and the pill-condom double feature following close on its heels. I'm glad my classmates received information necessary to make informed decisions about avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). And a truly comprehensive sex education is about more than just pregnancy and disease — it teaches students how their bodies work, promotes positive body image, and describes healthy relationships.

Among developed nations, the United States has exceptionally high rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs. While proponents of abstinence-only education hope that discouraging premarital sex will reverse these trends, evidence is not on their side — in fact, the correlation between abstinence-only education and teenage pregnancy is strong. Teenagers who have completed abstinence-only programs are less likely to use condoms and more likely to cause a pregnancy — and just as likely to have sex. There are many things worse than being uncomfortable or embarrassed, and unwanted pregnancies and infections are two of them.

The Future of Sex Education Initiative has recently produced a set of guidelines — which are available for any teacher, school district, or state education department to consider. Their National Sexuality Education Standards comprise best practices for providing sex education in K-12 classrooms. Their vision for evidence-based, effective sex education includes enabling students to evaluate and mitigate risk and navigate peer pressure.

So where does Arizona stand on sex education? While our laws give some latitude to school districts in deciding what sex-ed curricula they will adopt — or if they will teach it at all — there are no requirements to teach students about contraception, and "abnormal, deviate, or unusual sexual acts" cannot be mentioned. Such policies disadvantage everyone, especially female and LGBT students.

Arizona's failure to require comprehensive sex education has resulted in a patchwork of inconsistent interpretations of state law. Our laws make it easy for a vocal minority to demand subpar sex-ed curricula that emphasize abstinence while ignoring contraception and disease prevention. Although some schools do a good job, most forgo quality comprehensive sex education — to the detriment of students and society.

Almost half of Arizona's high-school students report being sexually active; 65 percent of seniors have had sex by graduation. Additionally, one out of four sexually active teens will contract an STI, and, given how many STIs lack symptoms but can cause serious damage, it's imperative that youth know how to access screening services and understand why they are important. Only 59 percent of sexually active Arizona teens report using a condom the last time they had sex, and 72 percent did not use other types of contraceptives, such as birth control pills. As such, it shouldn't be surprising that 8.2 percent of Arizona's girls, ages 15 to 19, became pregnant in 2008 — giving Arizona the sixth-highest teen-pregnancy rate in the nation and costing taxpayers $303 million.

That so many adults consider abstinence to be ideal is understandable — but it's unrealistic to expect widespread compliance. For that reason, sex education must empower all students, not just those choosing abstinence.

As students head back to school, let's make legislators know that we want laws that reflect national sexuality education standards. And let's make school administrators know that we demand comprehensive sex education in the classrooms. If your school's sex education policies are inadequate, demand improvements, and if you don't know what its policies are, ask. As a society, we have the tools to reduce rates of teen pregnancy and STIs — we just need to step up and use them.

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