This letter features reporting from “‘The Talk’: These Rural Teens From Utah Are Filling ‘The Gaps’ in Sex Ed” by Becky Jacobs and Jesse Ryan, a Pulitzer Center reporting project

Dear Chuck Edwards,

Rates of sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. have increased for the third year in a row. This is in part due to a lack of comprehensive sexual education in America’s schools. States with abstinence-only sex education curriculums tend to exclude information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and maintain heteronormative culture. According to a National Institute of Health (NIH) study, schools with abstinence-only sex ed programs have more unplanned pregnancies and STDs. While North Carolina is one of only 29 states that require sex ed in schools, the extent of the materials and lessons required vary. North Carolina does not adhere to abstinence-only sex education programs, but it mandates that schools focus on abstinence and “a faithful, monogamous heterosexual marriage.” It could be argued that the focus on abstinence education in North Carolina has contributed to us being ranked fifth in the nation for STDs. North Carolina’s young people deserve better.

According to “‘The Talk’: These Rural Teens From Utah Are Filling ‘The Gaps’ in Sex Ed” by Becky Jacobs and Jesse Ryan from the Pulitzer Center, many teens in Utah know “little to nothing” about sex education because of the abstinence-only focused curriculum, which does not include sexual orientation/gender identity awareness, leading teens from Utah State University to secure grants and establish Eastern Utah Teen Council. Together, they teach young people in rural communities a comprehensive, scientifically accurate sex ed curriculum that includes information on contraception and barrier methods to prevent STDs. Because lawmakers have been unable to pass legislation that offers teens comprehensive sex ed, local youth advocates have taken the situation into their own hands, and are now providing teens and their parents the type of life-saving education they desperately need.

Utah has not been able to pass legislation that offers comprehensive sex ed. Like teens in Utah, teens in North Carolina deserve better. Although North Carolina claims to provide comprehensive sex ed programs, it is still not the reality for most NC students. Cumberland County, NC offered a new, comprehensive sex ed program called Get Real in 2016. Statistics show that the new program lowered the rates of teen pregnancies in that county. Even though the program was science-based and focused on abstinence and building healthy relationships, the parents of Cumberland County were upset that the curriculum was associated with Planned Parenthood. Because of House Bill 315, which requires schools to make curricular materials publicly available and allows anyone to appeal their use, protesters were able to end Get Real.

It is time for the state to protect the health of our youth, and ensure that topics like contraception and barrier methods are combined with the benefits of delaying sexual intercourse. If our state offered a holistic and comprehensive sexual education program like this in every NC school, we would see a reduction in teen pregnancies and transmission of STDs. According to Mathematica Policy Research and Childhood Trends, sex ed programs that focused on abstinence-only had no effect on reducing STDs, while interventions that included communication skills, proper use of condoms, and reducing the number of sexual partners reduced STD rates by 30%. “Overall, properly designed interventions with the above-mentioned characteristics can achieve a 30% reduction of STI incidence” (Petrova & Garcia-Retamero, 2015).

When we, as a state, allow abstinence-only programs to dictate the type of information provided to our youth, we are jeopardizing their health, and possibly their lives. North Carolina must ensure teens learn about contraception, barrier methods, communication skills, and the benefits of reducing the number of partners, so we can reduce teen pregnancies and STD rates. 

We deserve better,

Tristan O'Donnell

Tristan O'Donnell is in 8th grade at Francine Delany New School for Children in Asheville, North Carolina. She lives with her parents, a younger sister, an older brother, dogs, ducks, fish, chickens, and potential roosters. Some days she sees herself becoming a journalist and other days an interior or fashion designer.  In the meantime, she plays volleyball, basketball and soccer. Her favorite things to do are curling up with a good sci-fi or dystopian novel, eating delectable foods, and playing piano and guitar. She is also known to break out into song spontaneously.

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