If you think sex education is an unnecessary and unimportant topic of conversation, I recommend you spend an hour in your average, smelly, pubescent-ridden middle school or watch John Oliver’s special on the issue. I recently reached out to the very cool, very reality-driven sex ed specialist Laura Leischner who works with various high schools and teenagers in the Harrisonburg community. Our e-interview explains how to be an askable adult, the state of sex ed in our country, and how we can work together to improve such a vital conversation to be had.
Hi Laura! Can you explain what you do in the community?
I work for the Office on Children and Youth, a program of JMU’s Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services as a Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program Specialist. In short, I mainly teach high school sex ed, but my job also includes co-facilitating two groups after school, heading up the monthly “Toilet Talk” poster distribution, and chairing our local Teen Pregnancy Prevention Action Team.
Can you share more about yourself and what drew you to this kind of work?
I would say my feminist awakening happened in college and subsequently drew me to picking up a Women’s Studies minor which has without a doubt has influenced me every step of the way post college. I’ve worked at the Collins Center, our local sexual assault crisis center, two abortion clinics in Philadelphia and Cherry Hill, NJ, the Central Shenandoah Health District, and now currently at the Office on Children and Youth. All of my jobs have had some connection to public health education, with a focus on girl’s and women’s health. I am drawn to this type of work because it allows me to talk to people about their bodies, their decisions, their emotions around decisions, and their future. It’s at times like being a counselor without the formal training. It’s incredibly important to make sure young people are receiving accurate health information without judgment, and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to do so.
From your experience, how would you evaluate the current state of sex education in our country, or at the least, in the Harrisonburg community?
The current state of sex education in this country is wildly inconsistent. Only 22 states and DC require public schools teach sex education and even worse yet, only 19 states require that if provided, sex education must be medically, factually or technically accurate. In Virginia, each locality or district gets to decide what and how sex ed is taught. Of course there are Standards of Learning (SOLs) related to sexuality education, but how it’s taught is left up to the schools and educators. In this community, my organization has a relationship with the public schools and therefore we go in and teach during their health sections. Some schools supplement more sex ed in addition to our curriculum, but some just let us come and do it. We currently teach 6-10th grade in Harrisonburg and Page County, and 6-7th grade in Rockingham County. Our programs would be considered abstinence-based, where abstinence is emphasized but many conversations are had about contraception, how to properly use condoms, negotiating sexual activity, how to deal with pressure, HIV/AIDS, and more.
Even with so many obvious downfalls, is there any progress?
Absolutely! Locally our teen pregnancy rates are dropping, which also aligns with the national teen pregnancy rate. This is due in part to more information being given to teens regarding contraception, and how how to use condoms correctly and consistently every time.
With the wide range of students you work with, what do you hope would be their greatest takeaway?
I hope that they don’t feel shame for whatever decision they make regarding sex and relationships. If they’re choosing to have sex, I want them to do it safely and feel comfortable having a conversation about it with their partner about how they’re going to protect themselves and how they’re feeling about it all. If they’re choosing not to have sex, I want them to feel good about that choice as well! I want them to pick up and stick to some skills to resist pressure around sexual activity and make the best choice for themselves at this point in their life. I always tell them that I’m not here to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do, just to give them accurate information so they can make a safe choice for them when it comes to sex.
So, what would you recommend for family members or those in trusted adult roles in regards to sex ed conversations, i.e. where to start, how to have honest convos, what we are currently missing in our “birds and the bees” talk:
I would say it’s never too early to start to have conversations with your children. From talking to small children about their bodies, and teaching them proper names for body parts to checking in with your elementary age children about friends and how they’re negotiating relationships to talking to middle school children about romantic relationships and sex, there’s a time and place for age appropriate information every step of the way. We have to move beyond the antiquated idea that if you talk to your children about sex that automatically means they’re going to go off and do it. Bottom line, kids are having sex and while opinions on that can differ, we’ve got to make sure they have accurate information and also adults they trust and can go to with questions. One of the most important things parents and trusted adults can do is be available to those young people. Let them know they can come to you judgment free with questions and find resources for them if you don’t feel entirely comfortable having the conversation on your own. The Office on Children and Youth is also a place adults can come to for resources about how to have the conversation, and we also are happy to do community presentations on how to become what we call an “Askable Adult.” We’ve got to move beyond “don’t do it” and start to give more information. Of course there may be specific familial values adults want to impart, but just shutting down the conversation and expecting that to be fine with our young people isn’t the best way to have this ongoing conversation.
In a feminist utopia (where there’s infinite snacks and candy and complete equality for all, *sigh*), how would you envision sex ed be taught and talked about?
First of all, this utopia sounds amazing. Secondly I would love for sex ed to be a conversation that happens constantly. I want it to be truly comprehensive and start from birth. Finally, I wish conversations around consent would happen more often, as well as reproductive health and abortion. How else can abortion stigma be reduced if we’re not talking about it?
Huge thank you to Laura for taking time to respond to these questions, imparting myself, our writers, and our readers with some seriously vital knowledge.
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