Commentary: Debunk the myths about sex education

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, facilitator of the Utah Safe Schools Commission, said the top priority is for students to have access to a "quick, available, well-trained mental health team" to assess and address mental health problems, in addition to "extreme risk" protective orders and background checks reported to the federal database, Wednesday, June 20, 2018, during a news conference at the Utah Capitol.

Today Utah teens face challenges to their health that are very different from those faced even a decade ago. Cellphones and social media access are ubiquitous. Despite age restrictions, hookup apps are increasingly common among teens.

There never was a more important time to discuss sexual safety and protection.

As a resident pediatrician, I see firsthand the results of the skyrocketing sexually transmitted infection rates among Utah’s teens. STIs are more than an embarrassing rash; they are sometimes disfiguring and can lead to systemic disease, infertility, cancers and death. Also, while rates of teen pregnancy have declined, there continues to be substantial room for improvement.

The best, most evidence-based strategy for decreasing teen STIs and teen pregnancy requires teaching contraception. This is why Republican Rep. Ray Ward of Bountiful, a family practice doctor, proposed House Bill 71, which will allow the teaching of contraception in Utah schools. (It proposes no other changes.)

Utah’s youth depend on it to pass, so let’s remove the biggest barriers: myths surrounding the teaching of contraception.

Myth #1: Teaching contraception leads to more sex.

Large, comprehensive studies show the opposite to be true. Students taught contraception are less likely to have sex, are better empowered to say “no” and to understand consent, and tend to have fewer sex partners than do their abstinence-only-taught counterparts.

Myth #2: Teaching contraception undermines parental authority.

Sex education is purposefully “opt-in” in Utah. Unless a parent deliberately signs permission, the student will not participate and is assigned a different class. Sex education is designed to work in tandem with parental authority and reinforces home values of respect, restraint and situational awareness. If parents feel undermined by this education, they can simply do nothing, and by default their student doesn’t participate.

Myth #3: Teaching contraception involves the teaching of sex mechanics to young people.

Sex education is carefully tailored to developmental readiness. Grades 5-6 teach maturation. Grades 7-9 teach about relationships and abstinence and introduce pregnancy prevention. Grades 10-12 teach about STIs, abstinence, contraception, relationships and decision-making. In most districts, curriculum is available for review online by parents before student participation.

Myth #4: Teaching will no longer promote abstinence.

Abstinence is a cornerstone of sex education. It is the only method of birth control that is endorsed. HB71 allows for the teaching of “the medical characteristics, effectiveness and limitations of contraceptive methods or devices” but prohibits their advocacy or encouragement.

Myth #5: Parents are already talking to their kids about sex.

More than 95 percent of parents believe that children should be given some degree of sex education at home, but in practice, only about 40 percent are having “the talk” with their kids. The only pragmatic way to close this gap is to provide better education at school. As for the other 40 percent, they can simply choose not to opt in. Or they can supplement their own teaching with the evidence-based, age-appropriate, pregnancy/STI-preventing education that will be taught in school with passage of HB71.

Spencer Merrick

Spencer Merrick, Holladay, is a resident physician in pediatrics at the University of Utah and Primary Children’s Hospital.