When Elyssa Mayo learned about sex in school, her health teacher spent 20 minutes talking about abstinence.
There was nothing on condoms or birth control. There was no discussion of anatomy. And the instructor quickly moved on to the next topic, taking the following few days to describe the food pyramid, exercise and the effects of tobacco.
“That was it,” said Mayo, now 27, of Layton. “I didn’t learn anything else about my body.”
In Utah, the Legislature has mandated that sex be taught using abstinence-based lessons that promote chastity as the most effective way to prevent sexually transmitted infections and the only guaranteed way to avoid pregnancy. Teachers can briefly mention contraception, but there are no expectations that they will, and many don’t.
From her experience, Mayo believes instruction on the overall topic is lacking. According to a new poll, a commanding majority of Utah voters think it is, too.
The survey of registered voters in the state found that 68 percent support schools offering sex education beyond abstinence-only. That majority held for all demographics, including political affiliation, gender, every age group, each level of education and among all religious preferences — including “very active” members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We often talk about how Utah is a conservative state, but we’re also a pragmatic state,” said Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. “Utahns seem to agree that sex education beyond just abstinence-only is a good thing for students to know.”
The poll, conducted by the institute and The Salt Lake Tribune, comes as the Utah Board of Education finalizes a new set of health education standards, which include what students would learn about sex, among other wellness topics. The latest draft asks teachers to present a unit comparing contraceptive methods, including condoms, and their effectiveness.
It’s caused concern for some parents, but the poll said most would be happy to see more information shared with teenagers about safety and protection in physical relationships. Of course, state law still requires abstinence to be the first and only promoted method; while teachers can’t advocate for students to use protection, they already can talk about it.
Mayo, a respondent in The Tribune poll, spent time after graduation trying to teach herself what she missed in the classroom. She read articles on the internet and pamphlets from Planned Parenthood. But she wishes her school had taught her more about sex — beyond just being told not to have it.
“Unfortunately, when kids are young, they do what they do,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea to help them be safe in their decisions. … In high school a lot of my friends were [sexually] active, and a lot of them ended up having kids. It was a mess.”
In the poll, conducted Jan. 15-24, 25 percent of voters oppose classrooms discussing more than abstinence. When broken down by political party, just 4 percent of Democrats were opposed and 35 percent of Republicans.
Lisa Cummins, a conservative member of the Utah Board of Education, has been largely against the new health standards since the beginning draft phase and doesn’t want teachers to talk about “comprehensive sexuality.”
“From what I’ve seen," she said, “abstinence-only is the best way to go for preventive measures against STDs, against pregnancies, against mental health [consequences] as far as making wise relationship decisions.”
She also said that despite the poll results, she doesn’t believe there is majority support for expanding the conversation on sex education. She suggested that the poll question is irrelevant because Utah teachers are already permitted to talk about contraception.
“The majority of constituents in my district believe in abstinence-only, that sex education should be taught in the home by parents,” said Cummins, who represents Herriman and southwest Salt Lake County.
The margin of error on the survey, which included 604 registered Utah voters was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Teresa Alexander, a 69-year-old Clearfield resident and registered Republican, also said parents should be the ones to tell their kids what they want them to know about sex. She raised three boys who went to school in Utah and told them simply to stay chaste.
“They didn’t bring home a girlfriend until after they graduated,” said Alexander, one of the poll respondents. “They respected our home, and they respected us. They didn’t do that kind of stuff.”
Even with the new standards, parents will continue to be required to “opt in” their children for the sex education unit of their health class. So those who don’t want their students learning about contraception don’t have to sign off. And it will still be months before the board votes on a final version of the health guidelines, the first comprehensive update in 20 years.
Lyon Cotti, with the Hinckley Institute, said the poll results may seem surprising, but she pointed out that when the Legislature tried to restrict sex education in 2012 — allowing schools to either drop it or only teach abstinence — there was so much public outcry that the governor vetoed the measure.
But this session, a relatively mild bill on what teachers can say about contraception has already stalled in committee. Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, proposed a measure that would clarify existing state law about discussing — but not advocating for — condoms and birth control.
The current statute, he has said, is vague, and instructors often skip the topic to avoid overstepping. But the House Education Committee voted 6-6 on the proposal Wednesday, effectively stopping Ward’s legislation from advancing to the floor.
“We owe teachers clarity,” he said. “I hoped for those teachers who felt like they were in a gray area and felt uncomfortable discussing it, it would make it more clear what’s acceptable.”
Andre Campbell, whose kids went to school in Utah and now are 26 and 30, said he talked to both his son and daughter about the consequences of sex and how to use contraception to supplement what they learned in school.
“I don’t believe that abstinence works,” said Campbell, 54, a poll respondent who lives in Murray. “It doesn’t make sense to teach kids to abstain from sex when they’re going to do it anyway. We’d be better suited as a society to teach them what happens when you do have sex rather than to not have sex at all.”
Mayo said she believes it’s important to have those conversations in the classroom because some families don’t or won’t talk about it with their kids.
“A lot of the stuff that I learned,” she added, “I had to learn on my own.”