Twice a month, about 50 high schoolers gather at Planned Parenthood in midtown St. Louis to attend a sort of alternative sex education class.
The students are volunteer members of Planned Parenthood’s Teen Advocates for Sexual Health program, which hosts evening meetings and retreats to teach teenagers about healthy sexuality. With snacks and worksheets in hand, students participate in interactive activities and discussion about consent, sexual violence and other topics.
Yet some students in the program say they aren’t learning about consent and sexual violence outside of this program, even after an updated Missouri law called on schools to change their sexual education curriculum.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed legislation in July 2018 requiring schools that teach sexuality education to include information about consent, sexual harrassment and sexual violence. While some public school districts in St. Louis city and county have updated their sex education policies as a result, many still lag behind.
The Ferguson-Florissant School District, for instance, still uses an abstinence-based program that has been in place since 2011, which doesn’t include teaching about consensual sex.
“We have all seen in the media over the last few years an increased conversation around consent. It’s been in the media all over the country,” district spokesman Kevin Hampton said. “That wasn’t a part of the conversation that was occurring around curriculum at the time that the curriculum we have now was adopted.”
Hampton expects consent will come up when the sex education curriculum is reviewed, but he doesn’t know when that will happen. In the meantime, counselors visit classes to teach lessons on consent, sexual harassment and sexual violence to comply with state law.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires school districts to submit annual verification showing compliance with state statutes and regulations. If the department becomes aware of noncompliance, officials would reach out and work with that district to resolve any issues, communications coordinator Mallory McGowin said in an email statement.
Despite the state law, a survey of students in the St. Louis area found many were not hearing about consent, sexual harrassment and sexual violence in their classrooms.
Teen Pregnancy and Prevention Partnership, a nonprofit in St. Louis, surveyed 55 students from eight public school districts and one charter school in the region in April. About half of the students reported they were taught nothing about sexual violence, and around 30% reported no information about consent or sexual harassment was offered.
Executive Director Meg Boyko said that while policy changes are a step in the right direction, there’s still a long way to go.
“What we heard from young people in this survey is that they are not hearing those policies in the classroom,” Boyko said. “There's a lot of mysteries that they cannot say, figure out by themselves with a science textbook or a medical pamphlet, and they are waiting for adults, whether it's teachers or parents or somebody in their faith community, to start to explain it.”
The Next Generation
The viral #MeToo movement of 2017 sparked renewed conversation over what consent looks like in regard to sexual behavior, but the conversation still varies depending on where it takes place. Teens in the St. Louis region say they learn about sex from parents, peers and media, who portray different ideals.
Lucy Madeline Puckett, a sexual health educator researching violence prevention at Washington University, said better education could help decrease the rate of sexual violence among teens and adults.
“Where do teens learn consent? Literally from everywhere,” Puckett said. “If we want enthusiastic consent to become the cultural norm for healthy sexuality and relationships, then we, first, absolutely have to directly and intentionally teach that to children and teens.”
For some school districts, consent and sexual violence has been a part of sexual education for years.
While the Clayton School District’s Board of Education voted in November to update its sex education policy, the district has been teaching topics related to consent since 2000, said Sarah Gietschier-Hartman, a health and physical education teacher at Clayton High School.
“We’ve included this in our curriculum for a long time because it is part of teaching comprehensive sex education,” she said, adding that the curriculum has evolved.
Clayton students are enrolled in health classes with a sexual health unit in sixth, eighth and 10th grades. Gietschier-Hartman said each involves age-appropriate lessons relating to consent, sexual harassment and sexual violence. Teachers address consent differently in elementary and middle schools to emphasize how it applies to healthy relationships in general.
Four years ago, the district made adjustments to more specifically address consensual sex in high school.
“It’s always changing and always has to be updated, especially with new research and medical advances and technology,” Gietschier-Hartman said. “It’s not like the Pythagorean theorem in math, where the Pythagorean theorem is going to stay the same all the time.”
This year’s Teen Advocates for Sexual Health group of 55 high school students is the largest in the program’s 19-year history, said TASH director Judy Lipsitz. She said the program is unique to Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, and it offers a place where teens can openly discuss sexuality and ask questions they might not want to ask elsewhere.
For TASH member Zoe Goffe, talking about sex with parents or at school gets awkward, so she feels more comfortable talking with educators at Planned Parenthood, she said.
“Typically the assumption is you're asking about sex because, like, you want to have sex, and that can be uncomfortable,” Goffe said. “But with TASH, it's like you can just be asking these questions to be more informed as just an individual.”
TASH member Kirsten Hoerman said adults in her life discuss sex with a condescending tone, making her less likely to ask them questions.
“They'll say, ‘But that's not for you yet,’ or, ‘That's not what you should be doing,’” Hoerman said. “I just think that in TASH, that judgment doesn't happen, and it allows everyone that's a part of TASH to feel comfortable.”
At TASH gatherings, “no topic is taboo,” Lipsitz said. Educators aim to make the mixed messages less overwhelming.
“They're bombarded with so many messages about consent,” Lipsitz said. “But they really don't have the opportunity to talk about relationships and what a healthy relationship is and what an unhealthy relationship is.”
Elizabeth Loynd, a senior at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, said she remembers hearing about consent in health classes but thinks the instruction could have been more thorough. She thinks her peers can define rape but might not recognize more subtle sexual assault or harassment.
“Even if we are taught about it, we only see the extremes. And so when people in high school kind of experience [sexual assault], they just assume they're not experiencing it because they're not experiencing, like, the worst of the worst,” Loynd said.
In the Ladue School District, students learn about sexual harassment in eighth grade, and consent, sexual violence and related topics in ninth grade, according to a survey response to St. Louis Public Radio from district health teachers.
Lipsitz said the 2018 update is pushing sex education in the right direction, but she still advocates for more in-depth and inclusive teaching. She said schools must take responsibility for helping students understand acceptable sexual behavior.
“I am passionate about all teens getting school-based sex education, because for many, it's not happening at home,” Lipsitz said. “Teaching consent can only enhance relationships.”
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