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A deep-dive into Georgia’s sex education curriculum

Between half-dressed celebrities on magazine covers, popular TV shows like “Sex Education” and abstinence-only curriculums, our society clearly has a complicated relationship with sex.

In Georgia, the word “sex” has maintained taboo within the state’s public school systems. 

According to Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit focused on reproductive health care, only 29 states require comprehensive sex education. Additionally, fewer than half of high schools teach sexual health topics deemed “essential” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The Georgia Department of Human Services Division of Family & Children Services administers a Title V Sexual Risk Avoidance Education Grant Program, which aims to “support decisions to abstain from sexual activity by providing abstinence programming.” 

With a conservative administration and political climate, exclusively abstinence-only programs are funded by the federal government.

Rachel Bloom is a dual-enrollment student and splits her time between Decatur High School and Georgia State. 

Bloom’s last health class was in the eighth grade, where they spent some time talking about sexual health. She remembers the course focusing mainly on sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. 

“It wasn’t completely abstinence, but that was one of the options they gave, and then they talked about condoms, but there were definitely some things missing,” Bloom said. “I think my teacher was trying to, like, do us justice, but they definitely said abstinence was the most effective [method], which, you know, isn’t false but it’s not a great thing to preach to kids.” 

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Bloom said that sex education should be included within the high school curriculum but believes that her school is trying to offer sufficient resources. 

On the other hand, Bloom has been in uncomfortable situations at Georgia State and was unsure where to turn. 

“I’ve been in situations at Georgia State where I’ve been sexually harassed in class, and I just didn’t know what to do or who to talk to about that,” Bloom said. “So, if there was a clear resource for that kind of situation, I think it could be really beneficial. It’s kind of awkward to talk to a professor when you know that you’re going to have to fill out a bunch of paperwork, and it doesn’t feel very safe to talk about [these topics].” 

Dr. Holley Wilkin specializes in health communication at Georgia State. In the realm of sexual health, communication can range from patient-to-doctor, partner-to-partner, teacher-to-student and via media. 

Wilkin said that while a public health issue is on the rise, government funding and attention increase temporarily but eventually simmers when another pressing issue presents itself. 

She believes that comprehensive sex education is a crucial step in stopping this cycle. Wilkin added that regardless of sex education, teenagers will still be curious about sex. 

“There’s also a lot of misinformation that gets spread as a result of there not being any kind of formal education,” Wilkin said. “Kids are still going to talk about it, and [an] older brother or whoever is telling them things that are not true or accurate that they might’ve picked up someplace. So, they’re coming away thinking things like, ‘If I have anal sex, it’ll be safe because you can’t get the girl pregnant that way.’ Well, yes, but you can still be spreading diseases.”

According to the CDC, the rate of teens having sex has stayed stagnant over the past decade, yet fewer students report having used condoms the last time they were intimate. 

The organization makes its stance on sex education clear.

“Lack of effective sex education can have very real, very serious health consequences,” said Stephanie Zaza, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health. “School-based sex education is a critical opportunity to provide the skills and information they need to protect themselves.”

According to Georgia Public Broadcasting, Macon-Bibb County Schools are testing a new sex education curriculum based on a program in King County in Washington state called FLASH. Their website states that the program is intended to prevent teen pregnancy, STDs and sexual violence. In King County, the teen pregnancy rate has decreased by 62% over the past decade. 

Former Georgia State public policy student Sophia Drewry said that her classes have focused on education and prevention, and sex education is no exception. 

“Education comes in handy by empowering people with the knowledge they need to play an active role in their own health,” Drewry said. “The more children or people you can talk to early in their sexual lives, the more informed they’ll be when it comes to making a decision around safe sex practices. It all lies in preventative work.” 

Drewry’s high school in Kennesaw dedicated roughly two classes of health class on sexual health. She said her class was taught by her male gym teacher, which she felt limited the range of topics discussed, such as birth control options for women. 

Bloom, Wilkin and Drewry all agree that many important topics are routinely omitted from the sex education curriculum, primarily consent and LGBTQ+ representation. 

According to the Center for American Progress, Georgia does not require the discussion of healthy relationships, consent or sexual assault. 

Bloom said her class failed to mention consent even once, so high schoolers have to figure it out for themselves. She explained that within a friend group at school, the students discovered that one of the boys had sexually assaulted several girls. The group of friends discussed the situation, and “they’re kicking him out of the group.” 

Bloom added that the curriculum focused primarily on heterosexual couples, despite slight deviation thanks to her progressive teacher. Bloom feels that there is a lack of sufficient resources for the LGBTQ+ community.

“It’s not that the information isn’t out there, but not everyone’s exposed to even the questions to ask,” Bloom said. “There’s not a lot of information about queer people on how to prevent STDs and stuff and how to be safe. So, that definitely needs to be included in the curriculum.”

The disconnect between abstinence-only and comprehensive curriculum seems to be as strong as ever.

“I think some of it comes down to just different underlying values and beliefs about the role of sex in people’s lives,” Wilken said. “The fear that usually drives the abstinence-only program or the no sex education at all type of approach comes from a place of fear [that] teaching them about [sex] will make them go and do it, whereas most of the research suggests the opposite: that if you teach them about it, then they’re going to wait and be a little bit more responsible when they do.”

Drewry saw this paradox between sex education and abstinence within her own high school.

She said one of the health teachers, also a soccer coach, referred to sex as “parking the car in the garage.” She believes this is emblematic of our society’s relationship with sex. 

“I think it’s very taboo,” Drewry said. “The teacher could not even say the word ‘sex’ in the class. I mean, that has to be a red flag.”