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Dr. Birds-n-Bees: How physicians are taking up the sex ed slack


 

An athletic coach stands in front of a packed gym full of high school students.

“Don’t have sex,” he instructs, “because you will get pregnant and die. Don’t have sex in the missionary position. Don’t have sex standing up. Just don’t do it, promise? Okay, everybody take some rubbers.”

Sad to say, this scene from the 2004 movie “Mean Girls” bears a striking resemblance to the actual sex education courses taught in schools across the United States today. In fact, things may have gotten measurably worse.

National data recently published by the Guttmacher Institute showed that adolescents were less likely to receive adequate sex education from 2015 to 2019 than they were in 1995. Only half of kids aged 15-19 received sex education that met minimum standards recommended by the Department of Health & Human Services, and fewer than half were given this information before having sex for the first time. With such a vast learning gap, it is no surprise that the United States has some of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in the developed world.

Concerned and motivated by this need for sex education, physicians and other medical professionals are stepping in to fill the void, offering sexual health information through a range of methods to students of all ages (some a lot older than one may think). It is a calling that takes them outside their hospitals and exam rooms into workshops and through educational materials, video, and social media content created from scratch.

“The fact that we’re able to go in and provide factual, scientific, important information that can affect the trajectory of someone’s life is powerful,” said Julia Rossen, part of a contingent of med students at Brown University, Providence, R.I., who now teach sex ed as an elective.

Their goals are not just about protecting health. Many are also teaching about other topics commonly ignored in sex education classes, such as consent, pleasure, LGBTQ+ identities, and cultural competence. There is a mutually beneficial relationship, they say, between their sex education work and their medical practice.

Changing the status quo

A jumble of state laws govern how and when schools should offer sex education courses. Individual school districts often make the final decisions about their content, creating even more inconsistent standards. Only 29 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, and 13 of those do not require that it be medically accurate. Abstinence-only education, which has been shown to be ineffective, is exclusively taught in 16 states.

Without formal instruction, many young people must learn about sex from family members, who may be unwilling, or they may share knowledge between themselves, which is often incorrect, or navigate the limitless information and misinformation available on the internet.

The consequences of this were apparent to several medical students at Brown University in 2013. At the time, the rate of teenage pregnancy across Rhode Island was 1 in 100, but in the small city of Central Falls, it was 1 in 25. Aiming to improve this, the group created a comprehensive sex education program for a Central Falls middle school that was taught by medical student volunteers.

The Sex Ed by Brown Med program continues today. It consists of eight in-person sessions. Topics include anatomy, contraception, STIs, sexual decision-making, consent, sexual violence, and sexual and gender identity. Through this program, as well as other factors, the Central Falls teenage pregnancy rate declined to 1.6 in 100 from 2016 to 2020, according to the Rhode Island Department of Health.

“Historically, sexual education has been politicized,” said Ms. Rossen, one of the current program leaders. “It’s been at the discretion of a lot of different factors that aren’t under the control of the communities that are actually receiving the education.”

Among seventh graders, the teachers say they encounter different levels of maturity. But they feel that the kids are more receptive and open with younger adults who, like them, are still students. Some volunteers recall the flaws in their own sex education, particularly regarding topics such as consent and gender and sexual identity, and they believe middle school is the time to begin the sexual health conversation. “By the time you’re talking to college-age students, it’s pretty much too late,” said another group leader, Benjamin Stone.

Mr. Stone feels that practicing having these often-awkward discussions enhances their clinical skills as physicians. “Sex and sexual history are part of the comprehensive medical interview. People want to have these conversations, and they’re looking for someone to open the door. The kids are excited that we’re opening that door for them. And I think patients feel the same way.”

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