Robert Gehrke: Utah’s sex education failure would be hilarious if it weren’t horrifying

Robert Gehrke

I have a friend who teaches sex education for junior high students and the questions she hears on a daily basis could make for a best-selling book.
What is sex? Can I get pregnant if there’s sperm in a swimming pool? What does vagina mean? Can you get pregnant through underwear? Can I catch pubic lice on my head? Birth control prevents sexually transmitted diseases, right?
One student gave her an entire handwritten list, two pages in all, with pretty much every inquiry under the sun.
Some of the questions she gets are practical, some are wildly inappropriate and some are frankly kind of hilarious. And good for these kids to ask the questions, and good for them, too, that they have someone who can answer them (within the rigid constrictions of state law).
But it also shows how utterly under-informed and ill-equipped Utah students are as they reach sexual maturity and how badly we — parents and teachers — have failed them.
The very real consequences of that ignorance was reflected in new statistics this week from the Salt Lake County Health Department, which found a continuing and alarming increase in cases of sexually transmitted diseases.
All the greatest hits were on there: Chlamydia and gonorrhea topped the charts, but that old classic syphilis was still hanging around, too.
It’s really no surprise. Chlamydia is the most-frequently reported infectious disease across the state and the country. But what is alarming is how quickly the rate has spiked in Salt Lake County, with 5,279 new cases reported in 2018, up from 3,792 five years earlier — an increase of nearly 40%.
Gonorrhea is even worse, with the reported cases exploding by 184%, from 673 in 2013 up to 1,913 in 2018. Statewide, the rate of gonorrhea cases skyrocketed from 277 in 2011 to 2,541 in 2017 (the most recent state figure available) — an increase of more than 800%.
The reported cases of both diseases are most prevalent among young people. In fact, 83% of all of the infectious diseases reported among 15-17 year olds are sexually transmitted diseases. Let that sink in a little.

We know the surest way to prevent the spread of these diseases: Don’t have the sex.
There. Problem solved.
Except it obviously isn’t solved. Because despite getting beaten over the head with a sex ed curriculum focused on abstinence and a predominant religion that forbids premarital sex, we keep seeing the incidents of STDs climb.
In fact, when the national data for 2018 is released it, is possible that Utah will surpass the national average for gonorrhea for the first time since sex was invented.
“This is alarming, and an indicator that our current approach to sexually transmitted disease education is not working," Salt Lake County Health Department director Gary Edwards said in a statement. "Teens need accurate, realistic, and comprehensive STD education — whether that’s at home, at school, at church or in another venue appropriate for the discussion.”
Maybe in a perfect world, every parent would be the Dr. Ruth of their household and their cringing children would learn everything they need to know to keep themselves safe.
But in the real world, kids are more likely to turn to the wasteland of misinformation and bad ideas available on their phones — and come away wondering if they can get pregnant by swimming in a pool.
For the first time in 20 years, Utah is implementing new rules for what can and can’t be taught in sex ed classes — a move supported by more than two-thirds of Utahns — thanks to a bill passed last session and the school board being dragged kicking and screaming all the way into the 1950s.
The new rules include discussion of consent and how to refuse sexual advances. They are more permissive in what can be taught about reproduction and contraception, but parents still have to opt in to that curriculum.
It’s progress, but it’s too slow and too incremental, and in the meantime kids are catching diseases. We need to do better. We need to get past our prudish tenancies and have an honest, ongoing discussion about sex and how to best protect young adults from ill-informed decisions with long-lasting consequences.
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