Sexual health education in Catholic communities

Sexual health education can look different based on where you are enrolled and what programs are taught through your school.

Sydney Novak

*For privacy reasons, some names have been changed.

For Meggie Gates, a graduate of Xavier High School class of 2012 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, sexual health education class was taught in a health or wellness class their freshman year of high school.

Their sexual education textbooks were blacked out with magic marker over topics that went against the church’s teachings and the textbook formerly belonged to their sister, who was 7 years older. 

The Catholic Church takes the holy sacrament of marriage very seriously. The church is opposed to divorce, same-sex marriage and premarital sex. In Catholic high schools, sexual education classes may be part of their theology curriculum because of the direct relation between sex and the holy sacrament of marriage. Due to premarital sex being a sin in the church, many Catholic educational institutions teach abstinence-only sexual education or “waiting until marriage” to their students.

“I remember when I was 19, my boyfriend had to teach me that there’s more [sexually transmitted diseases] than just AIDS, it was always just AIDS or pregnancy,” Gates said.  

They never realized as a teenager that there were other reasons to be on birth control pills besides preventing pregnancy. Birth control pills are often prescribed to treat things like acne, irregular and uncomfortable menstrual cycles and polycystic ovary syndrome. 

Gates doesn’t remember discussion of consent during their time at Xavier but does recall rape was brought up as it was something immoral. During their teenage years, they recognized rape as something very violent and considered everything else as consensual.

According to Gates, a former Xavier student started dating an Xavier teacher about two years after graduating. Gates estimates their age difference is 15 years.

Mary Pat Schulte graduated from Wahlert in 1987 in Dubuque, Iowa. Her sexual education classes were a part of her theology class. 

“I know part of that [marriage and family planning class] would have been waiting until you were married,” Schulte said. “And natural family planning was a big thing at the time, so they taught the methods for natural family planning.” 

Proponents of abstinence-only sex education argue this will delay teenagers’ first sexual encounter and, by default, reduce the number of partners, risk for contracting disease and unwanted pregnancies. However, a limited access to sexual health education can put young people at risk when they do choose to become sexually active. 

“I had two classmates that had babies and went to prom my senior year pregnant,” Schulte said. “I mean Catholic schools are about life and so I mean if you are going to be pregnant, they want you to have it.”

Abortion is a highly debated topic in Catholicism. The belief in Catholicism is that life begins at conception. 

During her education at Wahlert, Schulte was taught exclusively by laypeople with the exception of one semester where an ordained minister of the church educated her class on sex and marriage. Layperson is a term the Catholic Church uses to describe someone not ordained in the church.

“Do I think priests should teach sex ed? No. I don’t, I think sex ed should be taught by people who have had sexual relationships,” Schulte said. 

If Schulte could change one thing about sex education, she wishes it was something more families were comfortable discussing with their own children. 

“I’m very open with both Grace and Ella [my daughters] about that kind of stuff, because that’s my job as a parent to make sure they understand,” Schulte said. “And also that they get to make their own decisions.” 

Abstinence-only based curriculum is not exclusive to Catholic schools. Decisions about sex education programs in schools are made at the state and local level. According to Planned Parenthood, only 29 states in the U.S. require some kind of sex education, and it is still not required that the curriculum be of high quality. Iowa is one of the states that requires sexual education. 

This means that although sex education is required in those states, it is still up to the state and local government to decide what kind of programs they will provide.

“When they say sexually transmitted disease, I just assumed penetrative sex, you know, like I didn’t know there were other ways to get the STDs,” Abby Johnson* said.

Johnson graduated from a public high school in rural southeast Iowa in 2018. She had no formal sexual education through her school. She attended a school that had grades K-12 in a single building with roughly 60 students per graduating class. 

“There’s no right way to have sex but there’s a lot of wrong ways, and I didn’t realize they were wrong ways,” Johnson said. 

Johnson wishes the topic of healthy relationships would have been talked about more in her educational system. She remembers experiences later in her life with previous boyfriends asking for things repeatedly after she had already said no. 

She recalls her eighth grade biology class taught students about the human reproductive system and anatomy but not about using birth control, condoms, infection and diseases or consent.

The topic of contraceptives is typically not included in abstinence-only education programs. Although it is usually made clear that students were to remain celibate until marriage, queer and nonbinary students are often erased from this education completely.

“It was very heteronormative, they didn’t talk about oral or anal or anything like that I remember at least,” Jackie Mullin* said. 

Mullin remembers her sex education occurred in health and wellness class her freshman year of high school. She graduated from a private Catholic school in Minnesota in 2018.

Although she considered her Catholic high school different and less restrictive from other private schools, she remembers being the topic of gossip and rumors as a freshman.

“A senior was literally grooming me and coercing me into having sex every single time [I was a freshman],” Mullin said. “They just were like ‘oh she’s having sex, well she’s a whore.’”

Not teaching young people about the meaning and nuances of sexual consent can put teenagers at a direct risk. Teenagers who aren’t informed about age-inappropriate relationships can become victims and easy targets for those who want to take advantage of them. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most comprehensive sexual education programs are the ones most effective in preventing risk-taking behavior and things like STDs, unplanned pregnancies and HIV/AIDs. The “Sexual Health Education” program or “S.H.E.” for short, highlights the need to address all students, including those a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. 

*Jane Smith was a queer graduate of Xavier high school in Cedar Rapids. They recall Xavier having a lot of excellent academic programs and extracurriculars, however, they struggled with gender policing from faculty and administration at Xavier. 

At the time, Smith had long hair that fell around their shoulders, Xavier started enforcing new policies about appropriate boy and girl hair length. The policy stated boys’ hair must be above a person’s shoulders. 

“The internet was a location for queer sex education, because they didn’t have those resources anywhere else,” Smith said. “I couldn’t talk about them in Catholic school, they weren’t talked about in Catholic school and I didn’t feel comfortable asking my doctor or anything because my primary care doctor was associated with a religious institution.”

For some young people raised in Catholic communities, talking openly about sexual health can seem scary or uncomfortable. If your parents are proponents of abstinence-only sex education and that is what you learn in school, you might not have the opportunity to ask serious questions. 

According to Smith, during their senior year, they asked the administration if they could start an LGBTQIA+ club, and they were told it would exclude straight students and therefore wouldn’t be fair. 

“Unnecessary gender policing is just another thing that continues to affect queer people, like we don’t learn about ourselves or anything related to queer sex education or queer identities and then too, those identities are constantly shut down, removed from all media, plays and everything, school dances they wouldn’t allow gay couples to come,” Smith said about their experiences at Xavier.

Smith remembers feeling particularly defeated when their school would change musical productions so gay characters were not gay or erasing them completely from the production. 

The topic of consensual sex is important for teenagers to understand. The differences between peer pressure, sexual coercion, inappropriate relationships and rape all can vary in definition.

“Consent isn’t taught specifically because they’re like you shouldn’t be having sex, there’s no consent to be had because you’re not having sex, don’t have premarital sex,” Smith said. “Consent within a marriage doesn’t exist, because they believe marriage is consent.” 

The effects of misconceptions around sex can follow people well into adult life, making it difficult to maintain healthy physical and mental relationships with oneself and others. 

“I definitely personally still struggle with a lot of guilt and shame, specifically related to my body, like it’s really hard for me to even think about myself in a sexual way, like I still feel so much shame and internalized guilt,” Smith said.

But why is it important to Catholic communities that teenagers remain celibate until marriage?

“If we’re using our sexuality as something where I get pleasure, where I derive my own from this person and from this sexual act, then it leads to incredibly unhealthy relationships and an unhealthy culture,”  the Rev. Kyle Digmann, the priest at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, said.

In Catholicism, sex is exclusive to the sacrament of marriage and is closely connected to reproducing in order to have a family. The church recognizes marriage as a way to ensure the ideal home life for raising children.

“God gave us our sexuality as a gift, it is a gift he gave us,” the Rev. Digmann said. “He made us with that sexuality, he creates Adam and Eve and one of the first commandments he gives them is be fruitful and multiply.”

In the Catholic Church, in order to receive the sacrament of marriage, a couple must be a man and a woman physically capable of having sex. The sacrament in the church is closely tied to procreation so if for whatever reason, one of the members could not physically have sex, the marriage can’t be recognized in the Catholic Church.

“Our sexuality cannot be reduced to just the physical act of having sex, but instead our sexuality is a drive of us to fully give of ourselves,” the Rev. Digmann said. 

As much as sex is physical, it is almost more emotional in the eyes of the church. Because the act of sex is giving yourself complelely to another person and being completely received by them, it isn’t valid without a commitment to that person.

“It means something beyond the kind of recreational activity,” the Rev. Digmann said. “It’s not something to be done for fun, it means something and it means something very core to who we are.”  

According to the Rev. Digmann, not being married does not take away from the authenticity of the couple’s relationship. Any ordained member of the Catholic Church will be celibate but still have meaningful relationships. In order to have an authentic relationship, one does not need to be married in the church, because marriage serves as more than just a loving relationship, but a commitment to building a family, God and your spouse.