My Sex Ed Experience in School

by Isabel M.

Isabel is a teen writer who is part of the Females Against Violence Education Group based in San Francisco. We asked this group to write about their thoughts on topics related to pregnancy, contraception, teen health, and teen rights. The thoughts below do not necessarily represent those of the National Center for Youth Law.

My sexual health education has been very interesting but limited. I had sex ed classes in 6th grade and 8th grade at my school. I also got to learn more about sex at Females Against Violence with activities like relationship wheels and charts. My school doesn’t have a sex-ed program, but they offer one class for five days once every other year.

I learned about sex and relationships in my recent sex ed classes at school. I also learned more about relationships in a class I took on social emotional learning. I learned about healthy and unhealthy relationships and how to deal with them if I ever encounter them.

A knowledgeable and sensitive teacher is really important for good sex ed. Current information, education on birth control methods and access, and enough time for questions at the end were really valuable for me. I would like if one of the topics in sex-ed was Health consequences of HIV, other STDs, and pregnancy.

I would also like to learn about body image because many people aren’t comfortable with their body image so that keeps them from having a healthy sexual relationship. The health consequences of STDs and pregnancy would help me be better educated about choices I make in the future.

Have questions about STDs, HIV, and pregnancy? Make sure to take a look at our Youth Legal Guide to answer your questions.

Supporting A Partner with Mental Illness

This piece was written by Jo, a youth member of the University of Michigan’s Adolescent Health Initiative’s Teen Advisory Council. Jo is 19 and a college student.  She is passionate about queer activism and mental health advocacy among youth.  In her spare time she likes to play guitar and read social justice essays.

Romantic partners of people with mental illness may not be sure how to deal with addressing mental health. They will want to be supportive of their partner, but aren’t sure how to do so.  Thankfully, there are some things you can try if you feel like your partner might be experiencing mental illness or mental health issues. 

You can respect your partner’s boundaries. Some people who struggle with mental health don’t want their romantic partners to be involved in that part of their life at all, preferring to take care of it by themselves, with a professional, or with other friends and family.  

You can also respect your partner’s choice of care. Sometimes people tend to think that if someone has a mental illness, they have to be seeing a therapist and/or be on medication to be healthy.  But people may prefer to take care of their mental health on their own, within a community of friends, or within their family.  Don’t try to push your partner into seeing a therapist or taking medication. While you can make suggestions or alert them to new and valuable resources, the choice to seek care, and the kind of care that will be, is ultimately their own. 

Out of respect for your partner, keep information about your partner’s mental health on a need-to-know basis. There may be particular people that your partner would prefer did not know about their struggles with their mental health.  Even if you are unsure of the exact reasoning for this, likely your partner has a reason that you should respect.

It might be a good idea to have a crisis plan in place. If your partner tells you that they have a part of their mental illness that could send them into a possible crisis (such as panic attacks, self-harm, suicidal ideation, psychotic episodes, etc.), make sure that you know what to do if such a situation arises.  You do not have to be their only form of support, or do anything you are uncomfortable doing for them. Find a plan that both of you are comfortable with, so if something happens, you know what to do.

Take the time to learn about what your partner is dealing with.  There is a lot of stigma and false information about mental illness out there.  Look at some reputable information about mental illness, and make sure that you aren’t believing myths about your partner’s mental illness, or using language that perpetuates stigma.

The most important part of any relationship is to communicate.  So if something is making you uncomfortable, say something, and make sure that your partner feels safe enough in your relationship to do the same.  Your partner should be able to feel that you can be supportive, and you should be able to give support you are comfortable giving and making sure that your partner isn’t solely dependent on you. Both of you should feel safe and comfortable within your relationship.

Need more information about young people’s rights to mental health and mental care? Check out the Mental Health section of our Youth Legal Guide. 

 

Empower Teens To Control Their Own Health

By Sierra Freeman

Sierra Freeman is a recent graduate from San Francisco State University, where she received her B.S. in Health Education with a minor in Women’s health issues. She is passionate about equality, social justice, and health. In her free time, she loves spending time with family and friends, being at the beach, and going to shows/concerts.

In college, I was able to gain a sense of what empowerment looked like and felt like for the first time. As a young adult, there was a time when I didn’t feel able to identify issues that bothered me or have the space to be productive in how I wanted to see things change in life. I also remember, during that same time, that was not aware of what being in control of my health, body, and life would even feel like, or if there were even issues that I felt existed in the first place.

A key factor of empowerment, I believe, is having a sense of self efficacy, which is essentially a belief in yourself to do well or succeed. Within health education courses and high school courses I think it would be really valuable if all courses/spaces/classrooms were providing this type of space for students to discuss issues that come up in their life and identify what the root of that problem stems from. When you aren’t incorporating larger social or political factors into stress or how laws affect individuals, then you aren’t getting the full picture and in my opinion, you’re limiting the ability of young people to seek empowerment and be empowered to create changes they want to see.

Teen empowerment is an important aspect of health education, as I have seen in my own life, because it has transformed not only how I interact with the world but also has allowed me to believe in myself. Education is the key to teen empowerment and with more education, the more you feel in control of your life, health, body and being able to feel like you have the ability to make changes.
Empower yourself by visiting our Legal Guide and learning about your rights to reproductive healthcare, parenting assistance, and more! 

Ask NCYL: Am I Allowed to Breastfeed my Child in School?

You’ve sent us your questions about sex, pregnancy, and parenting rights. Each month, we’ll pick one to answer here on the blog. Check out our latest Q&A below!

Breastfeeding may not be the most popular topic to bring up at school, but we often get questions from teens wondering how they can manage being a mom and being a student at the same time.

Your school cannot harass you just because you’re pregnant or parenting.  It also has to help make it a bit easier for you to go to school and be a parent.  One example is that if you want to pump or breastfeed, you have the right to do so in school and most schools have to give you “reasonable accommodations” to make that easier.

What does “reasonable accommodation” mean?   It means that the school has to give you a private space (not a bathroom) where you can feed your baby or pump milk.  It has to let you bring a pump to school and give you a place to store milk safely after it’s been pumped, and it has to give you reasonable time throughout the day to breastfeed or pump and not punish you academically for taking that time.  That’s not all.  Check out Education Code 222 for more.

When navigating both school and new parenthood, it’s important to know your rights so you can stand up for them and protect them if people around you don’t respect them. If a school forces you to pump in a bathroom or doesn’t give you these “reasonable accommodations,” you have a right to file a complaint.

To learn more about your other rights, feel free to browse throughout the site for more information!

ASK NCYL: Can I get kicked out of school for being pregnant or being a parent?

You’ve sent us your questions about sex, pregnancy, and parenting rights. Each month, we’ll pick one to answer here on the blog. Check out our answers below!

 

No! You have the right to stay in school if you become pregnant or a teen parent.  Your school cannot treat you unfairly or harass you just because you’re pregnant or have a child; the school also can’t kick you out or force you to go to a different school.

In California, you have to stay in school until you are 18, you graduate, or you get a certificate of proficiency. Once you become pregnant or a parent, you can stay in your current school, but you also can choose to leave your current school and find a new one that might better meet the new needs you face as a pregnant or parenting teen. You can go to a continuation program, a GED program, adult education classes, community college, or a special school for pregnant and parenting teens. The choice is yours.

If you do decide to look into a different school, try to find out as much about that school as possible. Ask whether the school has flexible schedules, what degrees they offer, and what kinds of programs they may have for pregnant and parenting teens. Talk to trusted adults, your school counselor, teachers, and recent graduates of programs you’re interested in to get a better sense of what you can expect.

There are programs that will help you regardless of what school you’re in. You can find out more about these programs here.

As a teen parent, you have unique rights when it comes to staying in school and completing your education. Make sure to visit the School and Education section of our Youth Legal Guide for a complete guide to your rights in school as a teen parent.

Q&A: Teens Want More LGBTQ+ Inclusive Sex Ed

Natalia Young is a writer for Teen Voices, the global girl news site and mentoring program of Women’s eNews. NCYL interviewed Natalia about her work on the piece “Teens Say More LGBTQ+ Sex Ed Would be Really Helpful“. 

1) What made you interested in working on this piece? What drew you into the topic of sex ed and the LGBTQ+ community?

What really got me thinking about this piece was a meeting that I had with my editor. We were talking about potential pieces for me to write, and ended up agreeing on a story about the amount of sexual freedom that LGBTQ+ teens have in contrast with their straight peers. But after conducting interviews with some girls, both my editor and I noticed a pattern in their answers; while they did appreciate the freedom they had, the girls wished for guidance and direction in their sexual encounters, which was something they didn’t feel they were getting in their schools (from Texas to Pennsylvania). After noticing this, we decided to to shift the focus to what seemed to be the real problem taking shape for teens in this community who felt like they didn’t have a safe place to get the information that straight kids often take for granted.

 

2) What personal questions did you have that you were trying to answer while working on this piece? Did you find those answers? What did you learn from this experience?

Going into this piece, my questions were mainly about the experiences that my sources had with sexual freedom. However, this topic took a different route when I learned  how little guidance they had as “sexual minorities”. I think my biggest question was really pretty broad- I just wanted to know what kind of sex ed they felt would benefit and guide them the most. After all, you can’t take action towards fixing a problem if you don’t know what the end goal is, right?

 

3) What about working on the piece challenged your thoughts and assumptions about teen sexual health, sexual education, and the LGBTQ+ community?

It definitely was never apparent to me that LGBTQ+ teens had such pressing desires for sex ed as opposed to straight teens, or how seriously those desires should be taken. It just never crossed my mind- it seems like kids never take high school health classes seriously (even the way these classes are portrayed in the media– think about that scene in Mean Girls where the gym teacher puts a condom on that banana…). But after working on this piece, I started to think about how problematic it is that such an important class (health/sex ed) has a stereotype for being the class that teens make fun of. This piece definitely gave me clarity regarding sexual education, and made me realize that it’s time public schools change their health curricula by implementing programs that will inform teens in areas where they actually want information.

 

4) In your work with your peers, what experiences of theirs struck you the most? What surprised you the most?

What struck me the most is how much they were affected by something that I and my straight peers really take for granted. I can remember all the “milestone” moments in our sex ed careers (many of which involved visual presentations, from Wonder of Wonders to a live birthing video).

We dreaded these things, we made desperate jokes about eating lollipops to try and make ourselves feel less awkward, we shrunk in our seats when asked if we had any questions (or, in the case of some boys in the sixth grade, shot our hands up high, just waiting to make an immature joke).

Meanwhile, there are plenty of students who never have and never will receive this kind of full disclosure about how they can safely be sexual. They don’t have the opportunity to ask questions. They don’t even have the opportunity to dread awkward yet informative sex presentations. Realizing this really took me aback, and made me think about how long we’ve all been hearing the same things. We could practically recite the information they’ve been feeding us for the past 5 years on straight sex, but anything that deviates from this specific education is pretty much uncharted territory.

 

5) What do you think still needs to be done to reduce the stigma around LGBTQ+ sex education? What strategies can improve sex education for teens both in and out of the LGBTQ+ community? Have you seen strategies that work? That don’t work? Please describe.

I think the key issue with “LGBTQ+ sex ed” is the fact that we feel the need to separate this concept from conventional sex ed. In every interview I conducted, with both teens and experts, “inclusive” was the word for the type of sex ed they’re striving for. Basically, LGBTQ+  matters should be incorporated into the “normal” curriculums that schools currently follow. This way, (1) it isn’t awkward for teens who identify as LGBTQ+ to be singled out (like, “okay, anyone who isn’t straight, today’s lesson is just for you!”) and (2) all students can be exposed to information that will ensure their health and safety, no matter what the circumstance.

Many high schoolers do not have a concrete sexuality- while they may feel that they’re straight, queer, etc, they can only have so much experience by the time they’re a late teenager (for example, I feel that I’m definitely straight, yet I’ve never been on a date or had a significant other). A teen may discover, through an experience later on down the road, that they identify with a sexuality they didn’t even understand in high school. By having inclusive sex ed, it’s possible to provide students with the knowledge to make healthy choices early on in their experimental years, ensuring that exploration of sexual identity don’t have to be risky.  

 

6) Having worked on this piece, what are your thoughts or advice for other teens on how to access sexual health education if they can’t get it in school? Did you find any useful resources you want to share? What would you tell a friend or a loved one to do if they were struggling with questions around LGBTQ+ sex ed?

I think different things work for different people. One source said she liked watching Laci Green’s YouTube videos; another said IMPACT, a simple Google search (ah! see how this can be problematic?), and talking to her brother, who was bi, helped her through some challenges and questions she faced.

If someone I knew was having any troubles around their sexuality, I would definitely offer myself up to talk. I think that’s one of the most important things a person can do in any situation. Even if you might not have the specific answers that the person is looking for, just giving support and advice has some value. Through the research that I did conduct, I was exposed to more websites based around sexual health (both LGBTQ+ specific and otherwise) than I could count. I also found out that many communities have youth health centers or youth initiatives (visit our Resources Map to find centers and programs in California).

 

7) What did you hope to accomplish with this piece? What do you want to see change in the future of LGBTQ+ sex ed?

I hope that this piece opened up readers’ eyes and minds to the fact that the lack of LGBTQ+ sex ed is a very real, very serious issue. I think because of prejudice that still exists around any sexuality that isn’t straight, it can be daunting to try and sort out a curriculum to cater to the needs of all teens. This is especially true when you consider the amount of gender and sexual orientation identities such as trans, pan, asexual, androgynous etc., which can seem overwhelming to older generations.

But that’s no excuse not to strive for progress! I think that this article makes it pretty clear that LGBTQ+ teens have a good idea of what they want in terms of their sexual education. If adults who can make a change catch onto this, and combine the actual needs of students with the understanding of experts, I think an inclusive curriculum is totally attainable. We need to completely push the concept of “LGBTQ+” sex ed out of our minds, and instead focus on sex ed that will do what its name suggests: teach about sex, for everyone.

You can learn more about maintaining a health and happy relationship by visiting our Sex and Relationships section in the Youth Legal Guide. 

On Love, Relationships, Sex, and Protection

This piece was written by Juli K. a youth member of the University of Michigan’s Adolescent Health Initiative’s Teen Advisory Council.  Juli attends Eastern Michigan University and is pursuing a career in social work. Since she was 17, she’s worked for adolescent sexual health under organizations such as Michigan Youth (MY) Voice and Teen Adolescent Championship Teen Advisory Council (TAC TAC). She plans to continue working with adolescent sexual health as part of her social work career. 

Do you ever think about your first love? I often think about mine from high school. Despite how things ended between us, if I had not gone through some of those experiences then I don’t think I would be the person I am today.

When I was 14, being in love was never something I would have imagined happening to me. I would watch The Notebook and The Titanic, silently protesting because I just knew that someone loving me as much as Noah loved Allie or Jack loved Rose wasn’t possible. But if you have seen these classic romance movies, you would know that despite all of the love being given and received, relationships have their consequences. I learned this firsthand with my first loving relationship.

My boyfriend at the time was a few years older than me and had already engaged in sexual activity with previous partners. Although I was always very conscious about taking care of myself, I let my guard down when it came to him. We eventually started engaging in sexual activity ourselves.

When I was 15, we had a condom break. My periods were never regular, so when my period was a few days late I didn’t really worry about it. But after that incident all I could think about was how I wanted my period to come to ease my mind. After a few weeks had passed and I still did not have a period, I sat down and questioned the possibility that I could actually be pregnant. My mom was a teen mom, and I saw how that affected me and my sisters’ lives growing up.

All of a sudden I had to think about things I never dreamed of imagining myself thinking of at 15. How would I tell my mom if I was pregnant? Would I be able to terminate the pregnancy? What if my mom and boyfriend pressured me to keep the child? What would people at school think? All the over-thinking made me nauseous.

A friend of mine picked me up one afternoon and took me to Walmart where I did my pregnancy test in the bathroom. I would not have dared to take it at home; what if my mom found it in my garbage?! So there I was, in a Walmart bathroom, peeing on a stick. I patiently waited while the lines showed up, very clearly showing that I wasn’t pregnant! I was so happy I nearly cried. It was then and there that I decided getting on birth control was something I had to do to protect myself even more if incidents like this did happen again.

Deciding to engage in sexual activity with someone is quite a big decision. It’s important to protect yourself and your partner because unfortunately, being caught in the heat of the moment can actually take a toll on your future. I’m sharing my experience not to scare people from having sex, but to raise awareness about how important it is to have protection and communication between you and your partner. Even if things feel good and right, they can still have long-term consequences that could affect your future.

For more information about your questions around sex and relationships, your rights to birth control and emergency contraception, and information about pregnancy, visit our Youth Legal Guide.

Q&A: Let’s Include LARCs in Our Sex Ed Conversations

Angela Roberts is a writer for Teen Voices, the global girl news site and mentoring program of Women’s eNews. She is a junior at Peters Township High School in Western Pennsylvania. Being involved in the Teen Voices community changed her life; it exposed her to the burden of inequality women feel around the world and inspired her to become the ardent feminist she is today. Writing empowers Angela, who loves adding her voice to the growing body of work speaking out against sexism, racism, and injustice. NCYL interviewed Angela about her work on the piece “Where Teens Don’t Get Sex Ed, IUD Goes Unmentioned
(Editor’s note: Angela attends school in Pennsylvania, where the laws guiding sexual education curriculums are different from those in California. The California Department of Education provides explaining the current sex education laws in the state. You can learn more here.)

1) What made you interested in working on this piece? What drew you in to the topic of sexual education and the IUD? 

I first started researching IUDs when Katina Paron, the editor of Teen Voices, emailed me an article published in Mother Jones about the device. Reading this article was my first time ever hearing about the IUD.  As I read more about the device and its success rate, I began to wonder why I hadn’t heard of it before. It didn’t make sense that I had never learned about a method of contraception that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends as a “first-line contraceptive choice for teens.” 

Yet as I thought about it, I couldn’t remember learning about any sort of contraception in Health class. And I wasn’t alone. As I spoke with my female classmates, I realized just how little information about the IUD there was in my high school.  Out of the 14 girls I talked to, none could tell me any specifics about the device’s function and only two even recognized its name.  When I asked them about the sex ed they had received, my question was often met with laughter.  One girl even quoted the movie Mean Girls to describe the sex ed she received in high school: “Don’t have sex because you will get pregnant and die.” 

Others noted that, although they never felt pressured to stay abstinent, they never learned enough about sex for them to pursue any other option safely. Another girl stated that her sex ed was limited to a single class period during which her teacher read a list of silly, irrelevant misconceptions about sex while the class giggled. Hearing their stories drove me to learn more about my school’s sex ed program and how it measured up.


2) What personal questions did you have that you were trying to answer while working on this piece? Did you find those answers? What did you learn from this experience? 

I agreed to write this article before I even knew what an IUD was. I was also blissfully unaware of the inadequacy of the sex ed I had received. But now that I know just how inadequate my education really was, and how it’s affected my ability and that of my peers to pursue healthy relationships, I’m furious. Refusing to educate kids about contraceptive options and sex is not only unreasonable and ridiculous; it’s also dangerous. 

People who are against providing sex ed to students don’t realize that abstinence-only education does not prevent students from having sex. It stops them from having safe sex. Abstinence only education also creates an atmosphere of shame and indecency around sex – an atmosphere that condones slut shaming and bullying.  Students are also not taught about consent or how to diagnose an unhealthy relationship. Writing this article forced me to consider the importance of providing kids with sexual education as well as the long-term consequences for not providing it.

 

3) What about working on the piece challenged your thoughts and assumptions about sexual education and the rates of IUD usage? 

The more I read about IUDs, the more I recognized them as safe, effective contraceptive options for teens – and the more infuriated I became that my school provides students with zero information on them.  Because I was writing an article about this issue, I researched it way more extensively than I would have if I were just reading about it on my own.  After interviewing my female classmates and discovering just how little they knew about contraceptive options, I felt like it was my duty to expose the inadequacy of my school’s sex ed program.

 

4) In your work with your peers, what experiences of theirs struck you the most? What surprised you the most?

I was most shocked by my classmates’ lack of knowledge on sex and contraceptive options.  The atmosphere surrounding sex ed at my school also surprised me.  When I emailed my Health teacher about the IUD’s absence from the sex ed curriculum he responded, “The scope and content of the topics we are permitted to address in our personal wellness classes do not include these various forms of birth control methods.”  He did not say whether or not he agreed with the present sex ed curriculum – simply that himself and his colleagues were limited in the information they could provide students. The nurse at my school was also a vocal advocate for the IUD’s inclusion in the sex-ed curriculum. Yet despite this support, my school continues to provide students with very limited knowledge on sex and contraceptive options.

 

5) What do you think still needs to be done to improve sexual health education and inform teens of the options available to them like the IUD and other LARCs? 

There desperately needs to be a more open conversation about sex in my school. Right now, it’s stifled and this shows greatly in the attitudes and comments of students. Since I live in a fairly conservative area, it is unlikely for parents to provide their children with information on contraceptive options. If kids also don’t receive this information at school, their risk of having unprotected sex increases significantly.  If schools just set aside one day to talk about the contraceptive options that are available (including LARCs) this would, if not completely remedy the issue, substantially decease it.

 

6) Having worked on this piece, do you have thoughts or advice for other teens on how to empower themselves to get access to effective birth control and sex ed? 

Teens need to realize that it is within their power to obtain effective birth control. IUDs can be available for no cost, just as much as any other contraceptive device, to all teenage girls living in Pennsylvania and in other states as well. Although not receiving adequate sex ed at school can be really frustrating, there are a number of people on YouTube who are dedicated to providing teens with accurate, nonjudgmental information about sex. I highly suggest checking out Laci Green’s channel as well as Sexplanations, which is produced by Hank Green.

 

Want to know more about your contraceptive options? Visit our Youth Legal Guide section on Preventing Pregnancy for information and links to resources. You can also check out great contraceptive information resources such as Bedsider.org and TeenSource.

Can I breastfeed my child in school?

Yes.

The law says you can breastfeed your child anywhere you and your child have a legal right to be. If you are allowed to bring your child to school, you can breastfeed there. You cannot be forced to breastfeed in the bathroom or anywhere you don’t want to be.

Prenatal Appointments and School

The biggest challenge since I got pregnant has been getting to my prenatal care.

I’m in school right now.  The school tells me that I can’t check myself out from school for my prenatal appointments.  They tell me that I need my mom  to sign me out or call in.  But I don’t live with my mom.  When I got pregnant, my mom told me,“You’re pregnant and that’s on you. Don’t get me involved.” I moved in with my boyfriend and his aunt two months ago. My mom and I don’t talk anymore and there is no one to check me out from school.

Being able to check myself out for appointments and back in to school would let me go to an appointment in the early morning and then have enough time to come back to school and only miss one period of class.  Instead, I have to reschedule my appointments at the last minute if I can’t get leave school, or I have to make an appointment in the afternoon and leave school early. If I have an afternoon appointment and miss the bus, I get there too late and have to reschedule. And some of my appointments, like blood tests, have to happen first thing in the morning,

It would be better if the school let me leave and just said bring a note or a card from your doctor to show where you were.  I just learned that the law says the school is supposed to let me check myself out, but I didn’t know that before.   Next time I am going to try that and tell the school its the law.

“Nezlyn”