Sex education in Utah: What students did – and didn’t – learn in the classroom

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This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and the Utah News Collaborative, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

FEATURE — Sex education is required curriculum in Utah high schools, but students say the classroom isn’t where they are learning the most.

The Utah Board of Education requires eighth through 12th grade health programs to “present a strong abstinence message.”

That leaves a lot of questions about how sex works, said Salt Lake Community College student Lauren Hamilton, prompting teens and young adults to do their own research on websites like Instagram and Tumblr, Reddit or from secondhand experiences from friends and peers.

Hamilton, a sociology major who also works in the Gender and Sexuality Student Resource Center, said she first learned about sex from friends and her first boyfriend.

That “isn’t the way you want to learn about sex,” Hamilton said. “It opened the doors for a lot of unhealthy relationship dynamics and unhealthy views on sex.”

Preston Langlois, an SLCC general education major, said he learned the most about sex on Tumblr and the internet generally.

“The lack of talking about sex really contributes to bad behavior around sex, lack of consent, lack of healthy relationships and a lack of understanding,” he said.

Resource center coordinator Peter Moosman described his middle and high school sexual education in Utah as insufficient.

It “was not substantial or comprehensive,” he said. “It was like, ‘don’t have sex.’ That was all we got.”

Moosman now teaches a comprehensive adult sexual education workshop at SLCC annually. The workshop, which college instructors can also set up with Moosman for specific classes, covers contraceptive methods, sexually transmitted disease prevention, consent and sex in relation to gender dysphoria.

Whitney Ockey, health promotion manager at the college’s Center for Health and Counseling, said Utah’s abstinence-based education is focused on keeping teens from having sex.

Stock photo| Photo by Pornchai Soda/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

“[The hope is] that students are just going to listen and are not going to have intercourse, hopefully resulting in lower teen pregnancies, STDs and lower rates of abortion,” she said. “The intention is just to teach ‘don’t do it and you won’t have any problems.’ ”

Abstinence-based education has come under fire in recent years by health educators, citing studies and evidence that shows such curriculums are often ineffective in preventing teen pregnancy and STDs.

“I think you can look at that and say it’s not working,” Ockey said.

The Journal of Adolescent Health, for example, found that abstinence-only education programs defined by federal funding requirements can be, “morally problematic, by withholding information and promoting questionable and inaccurate opinions.”

For Ockey, who is also a certified health education specialist , there is value in promoting abstinence and its benefits, but it isn’t the only way.

“I don’t see a lot of harm in teaching the basics of sex education, such as condom use, what [a sexually transmitted illness] is, and that you could have an STI for months or years and not know,” she said. “Right now, no one tells you that.”

While Utah law limits sex education, Ockey is hopeful that over time the program could become more transparent.

“I think it can change, not immediately, and not without a lot of work,” she said. “But once a new generation is in the government, they will be able to enact change.”

Resources on sexual and reproductive health information can be found on SLCC’s website on the Center for Health and Counseling page, under community resources.

Written by ALEXIE ZOLLINGER.

Alexie Zollinger wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.

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