The State of Sex Education in the US: Room for Improvement

In April, the Huffington Post using data from the Guttmacher Institute produced some pretty scary infographics highlighting the state of sex education (or lack thereof) in this country.  While it’s shocking that many states have no sex education requirement, it’s doubly shocking that where sex education is provided, that there are MANY states in which there is no requirement that: 1) HIV information be included or that 2) Information provided be medically accurate.

SexEdMaps1_2Of course, sexuality education courses aren’t the only place that people are getting their information—they’re getting it from movies, television, friends, parents, and, increasingly, people, and youths in particular, are getting their information from the Internet.  The thing about all of those sources, though, is they’re often not medically accurate.  Television and movies rarely show people practicing safe sex—you don’t see a conversation between two people about whether or not they’ve been tested, how recently, if they have a condom—and then you also rarely see consequences from that failure to negotiate safe sex or condom use (unless it contributes to some juicy story line or plot twist).

On the other hand, in a 2009 study, half of the websites that occurred within the top 10-15 hits on Google when someone searched for terms like “birth control,” “morning after pill,” or “sexually transmitted disease” failed to provide accurate or complete information.  Further, an issue brief released by the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD) that supported the qualitative data from our previous youth intervention findings showed that the misconceptions held by adults around HIV and sexual health can be passed through generations leading to increased silence around risk and reduced knowledge of the need for prevention services and care.

SexEdMaps4So with all of that misinformation out there, it’s even more imperative to ensure that schools have comprehensive and accurate sex education.  And comprehensive means comprehensive – not just one hour in health class in spring of your Sophomore year. It means starting to provide age-appropriate sexual health information at a young age that enables young people access to medically accurate information rather than misinformation and myths.

And it’s not just about the right to have accurate information—this cloud of misinformation around sexual health has real consequences. In 2010, youth between ages 13 and 24 made up 17% of the population, but made up 26% of new HIV infections. Most importantly, education on sexual health does not lead to an increase in sexual activity. Quality sexual health education often delays sexual activity, increases condom use, and decreases the total number of sexual partners. This data just goes to show that failing to provide sex education, failing to talk about HIV or STIs or contraceptives or condoms, failing to require information to be medically accurate—we’re not stopping young people from being sexually active! They will continue to engage in sexual activity, but the difference is that they won’t be safe or smart about it.


Just as our health care providers have a responsibility to provide accurate information, our schools and our health classes have a responsibility to provide accurate sexual health information. Young people—and people of all ages—have a right to accurate and complete information about their sexual health so they have the tools to make the decisions that are right for them.

Intergenerational Interventions: Vital to Improving Communication on Sexual & Reproductive Health

Several years ago an issue brief released by the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD) showed that the misconceptions held by adults around HIV and sexual health can be passed through generations leading to increased silence around risk and reduced knowledge of the need for prevention services and care.  It provided data that reinforced the need for comprehensive sex education for women of ALL ages, not only youth. In response, our youth prevention program created an intergenerational intervention aimed at working with female family units or kinship networks that recognized the need to enhance discussions on how to break the silence on many “taboo” topics within the Black community. The program was designed to foster open communication that would nurture healthy and frank communication around our bodies; provide comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education; and explore issues of self-esteem, self-worth, and interpersonal dynamics.

Intergenerational 2014On March 8, The Women’s Collective (TWC) hosted its spring 2014 Intergenerational Retreat sponsored by the MAC AIDS Fund.  We spent a full day working with women and girls in various workshops focused on: HIV 101, communication practices, morality & values, media influence on sexuality, and sexual and reproductive health. All of the participants were excited and eager to contribute to every workshop. The setting was small and intimate, which allowed the participants to disclose and share stories. We were also excited to welcome representatives from partner organizations such as The Red Pump Project.

As successful as the day was, the main challenge for the event highlighted a challenge that we face throughout the organization and across organizations that provide services for people living with HIV/AIDS: outreach! Although TWC received a RSVP from more 30 potential participants, a total of 15 honored their reservation.

In response, we are assessing our outreach strategies. One option that we would like to explore is recruiting participants outside of Washington, D.C.  Aside from finding participants that might be more willing to RSVP and participate, we would be able to extend the reach of this program—we could reach more women, more girls, and more families.

TWC also recognizes the importance of social media in outreach efforts—particularly when it comes to youth! The use of the social network Instagram was instrumental in recruiting youth participants. However, it doesn’t have the same reach across older generations.  Our work has highlighted the importance of conducting outreach across networks—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, maybe even Pinterest!—because different networks reach different populations.

We are gearing up to take full advantage of the range of social media that is available to us as it may help us to reach youth—but there are still challenges when it comes to outreach to other populations. Populations that do not have easy access to a computer or the Internet, that do not have smart phones and constantly get updates about Facebook posts, tweets, or e-mails. As a means to better understand where women are we are working with Zero Divide to assess women of color living with chronic diseases and their ability to use web, mobile and texting to engage and improve their health over the next several weeks. The findings will impact our own internal strategies and approaches.

How have you had success in recruiting participants to your programs? What types of social media work for your target populations? We would love to hear and learn from you!

Engaging Youth in HIV/STI Prevention and Advocacy

youth_prevention_programIn 1999, The Women’s Collective (TWC) inaugurated its youth programming with an intervention for D.C. youth focused on increasing skills and knowledge around HIV and sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention and encouraging positive choices to decrease risky behavior. As our capacity grew over time, we added additional interventions that expanded our program focus to include nurturing healthy and frank communication around our bodies; providing broader reproductive and sexual health education; building the capacity of girls and young women to use their voices to be social change agents and to advocate for themselves, their peers, and their community; and exploring issues of self‐esteem, self‐worth, and interpersonal dynamics.

The high prevalence of HIV and STIs in D.C. makes working with youth to build their skills around sexual and reproductive health, with an emphasis on HIV/STI prevention, absolutely critical. Further, lack of access to regular health care, lagging comprehensive sexual health education in schools, early sexual début, older sexual partners among youth (>18), stigma, and lack of socio-cultural support structures are some of the factors affecting rising HIV and STD infection rates among youth. The lack of knowledge, skills, and structural support—coupled with the high level of risky behavior in which young women are engaged—underlies the importance of this program.

Our current youth leadership initiative serves urban, low‐income, at‐risk Black girls and young women and young men with four interactive group interventions. The overarching goals of our program are to support girls and young women in identifying and nurturing their internal strengths and in developing their abilities to become leaders among their peers.  Our youth program does this with the work with the ultimate goal of building life-long skills to improve and protect the overall health and well‐being of D.C. youth.

We currently engage in three programs geared towards youth and young adults. Friendly Reminders Everyone Needs To Know About Social, Emotional, Sexual and Physical Health (F.R.E.S.H.) is a TWC-designed community-level intervention that promotes healthy decision making, self-empowerment, and leadership skills and encourages youth to be peer educators. Between Us Girls (BUG) promotes the development of improved knowledge of sexual and reproductive health with an emphasis on HIV/STI prevention and that aims to support healthy relationships, improve communication, negotiation, and improve decision-making. Sisters Informing Healing, Living and Empowering (SIHLE) is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) group-level intervention. It is a peer-led, social-skills training aimed at reducing HIV sexual risk behavior.

We also have a twice-yearly Intergeneration event.  This event was developed in response to a need we recognized through our work with youth and adults: we identified the intrinsic value creating a safe and informative space to include adult participants in our youth-focused programming, as many young people were relying on inaccurate sexual and reproductive information from their peers. We created an intergenerational intervention aimed at working with female family units or kinship networks in order to strengthen discussions on how to break the silence on many “taboo” topics within the Black community, such as stigma, sexual orientation, rape, and gender‐based violence. In 2012, we expanded one of our initiatives to include and bolster the participation of boys and young men as in meaningful ways.

As our work with youth continues to grow and evolve, we look forward to sharing the issues faced by youth, as well as the challenges we face and successes that we achieve in working for and with youth and young adults to improve their overall health and wellbeing.