February 07, 2018

OP-ED: Sex education in the Beehive State — time to move forward

By Ryan D. Curtis

It’s 2017, and abstinence-only education still carries the day in Utah. That needs to change.

In 1988, reacting to the AIDS outbreak, Sen. Frances Farley (D-Salt Lake City) introduced abstinence into Utah’s sex education curriculum. It has since been modified to abstinence-only, which now comprises 23 percent of sex education in the United States (up from only 2 percent in 1988).

In the meantime, Salt Lake County has seen a dramatic upswing in sexually transmitted disease (STD) rates. The Beehive State’s most populous county went from having 201 gonorrhea cases in 2010 to 1,028 cases in 2015. Lynn Beltran, the Salt Lake County Health Department’s STD and HIV epidemiology supervisor, told the Deseret News in 2016 that comprehensive sex education is necessary to combat the changing culture around sex.

During the past two legislative sessions, Rep. Brian King has introduced bills attempting to modernize the curriculum. His 2016 bill, H.B. 246 (Reproductive Health Amendments), died in the House Education Committee on a 2-11 vote.

In 2017, King proposed H.B. 215 (Reproductive Health Education and Services Amendments). The bill would have given parents the option to choose between abstinence-only instruction, a more comprehensive lesson ranging from reproductive health and “healthy relationships” to abstinence, or nothing at all. The bill also contained provisions for instructing students about sexual assault and how to react and respond to it. Despite an endorsement from the Utah Medical Association, H.B. 215 met the same fate as its predecessor. Legislators were reluctant to upend the status quo, but Rep. Bruce Cutler (R-Murray) floated the idea of creating a commission to investigate possible reforms.

The latest proposal to modify Utah sex education comes from Rep. Justin Fawson (R-North Ogden), who is drafting a bill for internet-based lessons to take the place of classroom instruction. Parents would have the option to weigh in under Fawson’s proposal as well.

A recently-published report in the Journal of Adolescent Health argues that abstinence-only instruction does not succeed in preventing young people from having sex. “In both domestic and global contexts, [abstinence-only sex education] has not resulted in delays in sexual intercourse or the adoption of more protective sexual behaviors. The emphasis on [abstinence-only sex education] approaches has harmed other public health efforts, such as family planning programs and HIV prevention efforts, domestically and globally,” researchers wrote. “Governments in the United States and elsewhere should support medically accurate, evidence-based, and scientifically justified approaches to sexuality education for young people. [Abstinence-only sex education] as a basis for health policy and programs should be abandoned.”

A number of organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Public Health Association, the Institute of Medicine, the American School Health Association and the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, have spoken in favor of comprehensive sex education.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” We are continually failing our youth by not adequately educating them about sex. Whatever happens during the upcoming legislative session, the conversation needs to continue. If we want to get serious about reducing STD rates, it is necessary to make sex education reality-based, not steeped in Victorian-era morality.