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Opinion: Oklahoma’s lack of sex ed curriculum harming the state’s health outcomes

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Opinion: Oklahoma’s lack of sex ed curriculum harming the state’s health outcomes

Nov 24, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Janelle Stecklein
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Opinion: Oklahoma’s lack of sex ed curriculum harming the state’s health outcomes
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It’s time to have a candid conversation about a topic that seems to make many lawmakers cringe and flush. 

Sex education.

StateImpact reporter Jillian Taylor reported recently that the only sexual education topic that must be taught is AIDS prevention instruction. School districts, though, get to decide when and how to teach it. Parents can opt their child out, and districts must tell students that abstinence is the only surefire way to prevent spread from sexual contact.

Taylor reports that any additional sex ed instruction is left to local districts to determine, meaning that children have inequitable access to those lessons.  

That’s appalling in a state that ranks fourth nationally for teen birth rates and is seeing increases in sexually transmitted infections. 

What’s really embarrassing though is that a Republican state lawmaker filed legislation in 2023 that sought to outright ban sex ed classes, programs, tests, surveys or questionnaires in schools. 

What century are we living in?

Dr. Rebekah Rollston, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, writes that sexual education should include developmentally appropriate, age-related and science-based lessons that address abstinence, sexual health, risks, respect and healthy relationships.

Rollston argues that sex ed “isn’t actually about sex” but rather “teaches critical life skills that are desperately needed in our society.” She focuses on exploring why the United States “continues to fail its youth” by not teaching core topics like “healthy relationships, self-esteem, body confidence, gender equity, communication, empathy and respect.” 

She’s even put together a national map examining sexual education legislation and policy that looks at how they intersect with seven overall health indicators in Oklahoma — STI infection rates, high school students considering suicide, contraceptive use among high schoolers, teen pregnancy rates, high school students experiencing physical sexual violence and LGBTQ students reporting bullying.

In case you’re wondering, Oklahoma’s STI infection rates are 6,836 per 100,000; 19% of Oklahoma high school students considered suicide; 85% of Oklahoma high schoolers report using contraceptives; teen pregnancy rates are 29.7 per 1,000; 7.7% of high school students reported experiencing physical sexual violence; and 48.3% of LGBTQ students reported bullying. 

As it turns out, Oklahoma teenagers are having sex even if lawmakers don’t want to admit it or pass policies to help them do it safely. 

Rollston’s findings show that Oklahoma does not require students learn about: contraception, sexual abstinence until marriage, negative outcomes of teen sex, consent, sexual violence, healthy relationships or gender identity.

Here’s a news alert: Teenagers are naturally curious and are going to learn about sex somewhere. Perhaps Dr. Google or the pregnant teen mom down the street is not the best way to learn.

The pressure to prevent unwanted pregnancies, meanwhile, has ratcheted up as lawmakers fight to save  “unborn life” by all but banning abortion.

Oklahoma Voice reporter Mindy Ragan Wood reported that this week the State Department of Health won’t refer patients for abortions because of the state’s restrictive abortion laws. That decision has cost the state $4.5 million in federal grant funds, which Attorney General Gentner Drummond is challenging.

Investigative news outlet Frontier also reported recently that a state law has blocked the state Health Department from giving minors confidential care like physical exams or prescription drug access without parental consent.

In an ideal world, parents should play a role in their children’s health decisions. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

Sadly, not all children have parents who are active in their lives, or who are available and willing to give consent for treatment, allow them access to birth control or even antibiotics. We often hear stories about children who are estranged from their parents or homeless. How are they supposed to get equitable access?

Even the most loving parents aren’t always equipped to teach children about sex.

As lawmakers demonstrate, the topic is awkward to talk about and complicated.

Maybe it’s time to shrug off the awkwardness and look at adopting a science-based, developmentally appropriate comprehensive sex ed curriculum.

Because legislators can’t have it both ways.

If they want to restrict access to health care and abortion, then they need to ensure Oklahomans have all the other tools available to safeguard their reproductive health — before decisions are made that can’t be undone. 

In a state that consistently struggles with health outcomes, more needs to be done.

Doing nothing is both reckless and unwise.

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