Opinion: Comprehensive sex education key for empowering youth in health decisions

Cyreena Boston Ashby

Boston Ashby is chief executive officer of Girls Inc. of the Pacific Northwest and a former public health official. She lives in Portland.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the constitutional right to an abortion will have catastrophic effects in many states, and the aftermath continues to play out week to week across the United States. Oregon currently remains a place of solace for anyone seeking a safe and legal abortion, regardless of their income, minority status, gender identity, immigration status or health insurance coverage — a remarkable comparison to more than half the states in the country that have banned or severely restricted the procedure.

But the polarizing abortion debate provides a key opportunity for Oregonians to refocus on a related matter: comprehensive sexuality education. Oregon’s children deserve an education that empowers them with the expertise and insights on sexual development needed to make informed, mature decisions in the future. This is an issue that people on either side of the abortion debate can support.

Comprehensive sex education, which is mandatory in Oregon, consists of age-appropriate curricula that provides young people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values they need to mature sexually, socially and medically, regardless of a young person’s choice to have sex or not.

While parents and guardians may exclude their children from instruction, Oregon schools are required to teach sex education through a curriculum that promotes abstinence, recognizes different sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions, and perhaps most critically, provides instruction on consent.

The benefits of this framework have been extensive, as evidenced by the most recent Student Health Survey. This survey notifies state officials of various factors that contribute to Oregon students’ welfare, from physical health to sexual health and beyond and is given to students in sixth, eighth and 11th grades. Questions vary depending on grade, but overall they include questions about sexual health, housing and food security, safety at home, exposure and prevalence to physical abuse by peers or adults, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse or impaired driving. The intelligence gleaned provides the state with integrated upstream public health data for our adolescent population, and it notes that sexual care and sex education is not a single issue; it is about well-rounded whole-person health.

What’s more, the survey shows us that comprehensive sexuality education is an upstream solution to multiple public health concerns. As a result of this education, Oregon teens are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to understand the emotional, physical and social aspects of human sexuality and healthy relationships, and ultimately prevent sexually transmitted diseases and infections, pregnancies, and greater instances of risky behavior and dangerous relationships.

Unfortunately, only some school districts, such as Portland Public Schools, provide comprehensive sexual education curriculum. Some districts are opting to teach the abstinence-only curriculum and not fully implementing instruction on the relational and medical components of sex education. Across Oregon, all youth need help to develop healthy, consensual relationships and to plan against unintended pregnancies. The Department of Education, which has said it works to bring noncompliant districts in compliance, must ensure that all Oregon school districts implement comprehensive sex education as outlined in state law.

But there’s more that we should be doing as well.

  • · We need to demand funding for school-based health centers where contraception and information about sexually transmitted diseases and sexually transmitted infections are available discreetly and without shame.
  • · Community members should discuss with school superintendents, school boards, and site-based decision-makers the positive impacts of sexuality education.
  • · Schools should provide sex education curricula to parents and guardians. We must respect parents and guardians’ legal right to have their student opt out of sex education instruction but encourage them to educate themselves on the modern merits of this information. Even if they promote abstinence as the primary method of sexual guidance, such materials help them become more informed authorities in their children’s sexual development.
  • · The Oregon Health Authority should more effectively administer the distribution of the student health survey across the state. This survey should also be translated into more languages and promoted to ensure that all demographics, particularly those with deep inequities (e.g., rural residents, low-income families, non-English speakers, BIPOC youth), are able to share their health needs and benefit from the informative impacts of sex education.

The abortion argument will remain polarizing and fluid, so we must reach beyond the active debate and ensure that the future of young adults in Oregon is safe and healthy. We have an opportunity to be a national example as a state that prepares for the future through healthy sexuality and preventative health care. Oregonians must keep up the fight to remain a beacon of light for education, safety, fairness and informed medical rights. The future of young Oregonians depends on it.

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