Everyone has experienced that same dreaded day in middle school: the day when you learn about sex. Except that’s not exactly the case. For the majority of American middle school students, sex ed involves a single class period where the teacher awkwardly talks about birth control and human anatomy without ever explaining sex.
“The teacher didn’t even have time to show us how to put a condom on. She just kind of passed them out at the end, and I was like ‘how am I going to use this?’ ” junior Selia Peña recalls.
Peña is one of five Lincoln students who are a part of Teen Council, a program that aims to improve sex education for high school students.
In the Portland Public School district a required high-school health course is meant to cover sex ed. Health is a broad subject that consists of many topics related to students’ well-being. As knowledge of the body grows, Lincoln health teacher Timm Goldhammer changes the health program accordingly.
“I continually revise our health curriculum to align with Oregon health standards and implement the best practices to ensure all health students receive the most current, up-to-date and engaging content in every classroom,” says Goldhammer.
Teachers like Goldhammer teach students learn how to use condoms and contraceptives, how to develop a healthy attitude toward sex, and how to avoid learn about Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs.).
Students receive a “comprehensive school-based sexuality education is appropriate to students’ age, developmental level, and cultural background,” he says. This program recognizes student diversity and provides sex ed that complements what students learn from their families, religious groups and healthcare professionals.
Since health teachers must cover many topics, sex education is confined to a single month. Only so much information can be covered during this timespan. That’s why health teachers like Goldhammer welcome the visit of Teen Council members who are determined to keep their peers informed.
“(Teen Council) is a group of teenagers who go around to different schools and teach about sex ed, which involves teaching about healthy relationships, STIs and birth control. We take over the health classes for a few days and teach these subjects in a fun and inclusive way,” says Peña.
Almost every state has at least one Teen Council group. Peña’s local chapter is composed of 12 high school students from Lincoln, Cleveland High School, St. Mary’s Academy and the Metropolitan Learning Center. They meet every Monday to learn about sex ed, plan visits to various Portland high schools and organize community-oriented events.
Teen Council helps students connect to the subject of sex in a more engaging way than reading a textbook. Members of Teen Council typically visit high school health classes for three days, but teachers determine the amount of time they have to teach
In addition to Teen Council, Peña is a member of the recently formed Youth Leadership Council, about 15 high school students who decide the sex ed curriculum of Multnomah County schools.
“The board of directors comes up with ideas for sex ed and runs them by us teenagers for feedback about what we like, what we don’t like and how it can be more inclusive,” says Peña. “We tell them what other teenagers need and want to know.”
Of all the Portland-area schools that she has visited, Pena says Lincoln has one of the best health departments with students who want to learn about sex ed.
“I have noticed that students at other schools aren’t this way. They think it’s stupid and just don’t want to listen. They’re not as interested and engaged,” she says.
Peña believes that sex ed should be incorporated into the health curriculum throughout the year and taught to kids as early as possible – long before high school.
“People think that kids in middle school aren’t having sex, but anyone can have sex. I took health as a sophomore so I was in high school for a year before I was taught about sex,” she said.
One of her main goals for middle schools and high schools alike is to decrease the discomfort often felt by students and teachers when it comes to talking about sex.
“Right now sex is a taboo thing that people don’t really want to talk about,” she says. “Students are obviously going to have sex at some point in their lives. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily having it right now. But at some point, kids need to know the risks of sex and how to be safe while having sex so that they live better lives.”
One challenge Peña faces on the leadership council is ensuring that sex ed is as inclusive as possible. To do so, she considers factors such as race, gender and sexuality when designing the sex ed curriculum – topics that are not being prominently covered in Portland high schools. Peña has even seen teachers providing with false information on multiple occasions.
“I often notice teachers not being very conscientious about gender and sexuality. There are some things that I’ve heard that just aren’t right about gender identification,” she says..
Pena encourages students with questions about sex to approach her or any of the other Teen Council members at Lincoln.
Through both councils, Peña has made a difference in sex education.
“I’m actually able to get in the real world and tell kids what’s going on, and tell them things they aren’t learning,” she says.
High school sex ed may not be perfect, but with the help of students like Peña, the awkward sex talk is becoming a thing of the past.