Finding a middle ground, sexual education in public schools


Iowa State’s sexual education courses provide students with in-depth knowledge to incorporate positive sexual behavior in their daily lives. 

Alison Boysen

Trigger warning: This content uses language that may trigger sexual assault survivors.

Sexual assault is a complex and horrible issue. It is personal, it is heartbreaking and it is different in every case. But if we ever want to put an end to sexual assault, we have to stop letting its complexity get in our way.
“I am there with you” is the story of an Iowa State Daily reporter’s experience in dealing with her assault. Every sexual assault survivor will have varying experiences coping with their situation and the decisions they make in whether to report or seek help, all of which are valid. “I am there with you” is the story of one individual’s experience, but we hope it will raise awareness about an issue that affects this entire community. 
This is the first story in a semester-long series where the Daily will publish a multitude of stories related to sexual assault, including discussions about various resources survivors can obtain if they are comfortable doing so. 
— Emily Barske, editor in chief 

‘Having the talk’ is an age-old euphemism for learning about sexual health typically from their parents or teachers. 

Despite the occasional awkwardness, some educators such as Amy Popilion, senior lecturer in human development and family studies, believes that there should be lots of talks, not just ‘a talk’ in isolation.

Sexual education has a history of being very controversial, a fight between comprehensive sex education (CSE) and sexual risk avoidance (SRA)-based education.

Today, this battle ensues, the question being which one is more beneficial to teach teens about sex and how to be safe while participating in sexual encounters.

Planned Parenthood is an organization that teaches a comprehensive curriculum to schools, colleges and adults. Ascend is an organization that promotes abstinence as a way to stay sexually healthy.

“Our education is comprehensive, age appropriate, medically accurate, so depending on what the request is, we spend a lot of time talking to the teachers … to get an idea of what students are wanting to learn,” said Beth Mensing, comprehensive sexual health educator at Planned Parenthood.

Iowa’s standards for sexual education are not specific on how these topics should be taught.

According to Iowa’s educational standards, “[…] age-appropriate and research-based human growth and development; substance abuse and nonuse; emotional and social health; health resources; and prevention and control of disease, including age-appropriate and research-based information regarding sexually transmitted diseases, including HPV and the availability of a vaccine to prevent HPV and acquired immune deficiency syndrome.” 

In fact, these standards do not include anything about sexual violence.

“There’s not a one curriculum that everyone is supposed to use,” Mensing said. “There are minimum guidelines under human growth and development. They’re very minimal, they’re very vague.”

The National Sexuality Education Standards are guidelines that cover the minimum, not everything that should be taught but what they believe are essential to teach children.

The standards are driven by a comprehensive-based curriculum that would be inclusive to all sexualities, based on proven evidence, and promote positivity in learning about one’s body.

Main differences between comprehensive and abstinence-based education

Comprehensive education “help[s] teens make responsible decisions to keep them safe and healthy,” according to Sexuality Information and Education for the United States. This curriculum teaches about all sexualities and different types of sex, and uses inclusive language.

Special Review Assessment, also known as SRA education, focuses on decreasing sexual activity or delaying it in teens, even those who have began having sex. SRA also touches on the topic of dating violence and other violences that can be committed against a teen. SRA’s goals are the same for homosexual and heterosexual teens.

Ways to improve sex education

Mensing believes sexual education can be approved upon in schools.

“I think there should be something available every year, K-12, that’s addressing healthy relationships, consent, decision-making, how their bodies work,” she said.

As an important part of their childrens’ lives, parents also become teachers and role models. Parents who are able to have these conversations with their children are enabling their child to talk to a trusted adult, not a stranger.  

“I’ve found that parents can sometimes be the pushback, because they feel really uncomfortable with talking about it and they will deny their students permission to be in the class […] or express discontent after the class has happened,” Mensing said.

One reason why parents do not have these conversations with their children is because they feel uneasy with the topic, or not confident in giving the right information. Some parents even prevent students from receiving sexual educations from schools if they do not agree with what is being taught.

Having support from parents is an important aspect when teaching youth, and there are even programs that train parents to be able to educate their children. Putting all the responsibility on sexual health educators can be destructive if a school only provides one lesson on sexual health. Parents can find resources on the internet, in a library, schools or other places.

“I did a parenting fair once, and so I created a list of books for different age groups and topics,” Elizabeth Wolfe, Planned Parenthood educator, said.

Educators of comprehensive curriculum believe that there are many ways to help the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) community. By using inclusive language, recognizing their different struggles, overcoming stereotypes and gearing resources toward men and women — opposed to usually women — they hope that more people of this community will come forward with their assaults and report them.

Eyes Open Iowa is a sexual education source that is available on the internet for free that anybody can use — parents, teachers and more. This is a resource for schools that may not have outside resources come in and teach their students about sexual health.

Sexual assault education

Teaching about sexual assault is also an important part to discuss when going over sexual education. Some survivors may not know that they have been assaulted if they don’t know the many different ways a person can be assaulted.

“I’ve definitely seen… where people don’t realize what happened to them with assault,” Wolfe said. “I think when you can start talking about that at a younger age, then as you get older, you get a better idea. Young people get so many mixed messages from movies and TV and everything what makes a healthy relationship.”

Popillion believes there are dangers to not informing students on all aspects of sexual education. She also believes students should be able to understand pleasure and satisfaction, and should have good communication with a partner to be informed.

“It’s embedded in history how we talk about sexuality,” Popillion said. “We use a lot of euphemisms like ‘having the talk.’ You should be having lots of talks.”

Helping to educate about the reality of sexual assaults, building empathy and being mindful are all things that can bring down the stigma that hovers over sexual assault and its survivors.

Educators of sexual health and relationships can help begin the discussion of how to deal with sexual assault. By teaching students what sexual assault really is, there is a possibility that it could prevent assaults.

“To be able to discern my job is to educate a wide diversity of perspectives,” Popillion said.