Until a few years ago, I never fully appreciated how lucky I was to have Mrs. Braker as my sex ed teacher at Portola Junior High. In her classroom filled with giant posters of beluga whales and squid (she was also the marine biology teacher), we’d watch funny cartoons about safe sex and stare bug-eyed at her display case of condoms, IUDs, and other contraceptives she’d gathered from her global travels. Even though she told us to wait to have sex until we were ready (and emphasized that she doubted any of us really were), she made sure we knew how to protect ourselves and never made sex seem dirty or wrong. Of course we giggled. Of course dumb jokes were made. But as far as I could tell, none of us felt ashamed—and most importantly, none of us left her seventh grade classroom uninformed.
Eventually, after a lot more school, I found myself on staff at Seventeen magazine at a time when our then-President was mandating abstinence-only programs in schools. Knowing that millions of girls read and trusted every word we were printing was a huge responsibility, but also an amazing opportunity to fill the dangerous gap in sexuality education. Between pages full of cute outfits and hair tips, we featured articles about sexual pressure, safer sex, feeling confident about your sexual identity, what to do if you think you have an STD, and even the fight to get sexuality education back in schools—not just because we thought it was important, but because young girls wrote us emails daily, confessing their worries and asking us the questions they knew they wouldn’t get answers to in the classroom.
I can’t tell you how relieved I was that President Obama shifted funding away from abstinence-only programs here in the United States, but there are still a ton of barriers keeping young people from the comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) programs they need both here and abroad. Because local and national governments often are unsupportive of CSE, many non-profit and civil society groups create their own programs to give young people the information they need.
One of IWHC’s partner organizations, Girls Power Initiative, has made impressive headway in Nigeria. Seventeen years ago, two mothers decided they wanted a better future for their young daughters, so they started some small workshops to teach neighborhood girls about their bodies and their rights. Local religious leaders opposed their work, thinking their teachings would go against local culture and religion, so they held the meetings in their own homes and public spaces. The program was empowering for girls, and word started spreading. Parents—including the religious leaders who once opposed GPI—now actually vie to get their daughters into the workshops which have helped educate over 300,000 girls across Nigeria.
Here in the U.S., Advocates for Youth, Answer, and SIECUS are collaborating on The Future of Sex Education Project. Their website, which launched this week, is full of information about the history of sex education in America and features a tool kit for anyone who wants to advocate for comprehensive sexuality education at schools across their state. Check it out and show support for their work. We’ll all have a healthier future if you do.