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.”
According to the Sex Education Collaborative, Utah Code amended in May 2019 removed language that included “the advocacy of sexual activity outside of marriage, the intricacies of intercourse, the advocacy of premarital or extra marital sexual activity, or the advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods or devices.”
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.
GSSRC coordinator Peter Moosman described his middle and high school sexual education 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 or as requested by teachers. The workshop covers contraceptive methods, sexually transmitted disease prevention, consent, and sex in relation to gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia.
Whitney Ockey, health promotion manager at the Center for Health and Counseling, said the intended outcome of Utah’s abstinence-based education is focused on keeping teens from having sex.
“[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 education health education specialist with an interest in adult sexual and reproductive health, 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 an STI 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 prohibits health teachers from promoting sex education beyond abstinence before marriage, Ockey is hopeful for a push in more transparency.
“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.