Students, educators say comprehensive sex education has a long way to go


Ryan Ash

The Planned Parenthood in Champaign located on Stoughton Avenue provides information and services in regards to sex education. (Feb. 2022)

By Yuzhu Liu, Contributing Writer

Bhavana Khanna, senior in LAS, was once taught to imagine herself as a flower.

Her teacher went on with this analogy: Every time you have sex with someone, you are plucking off a petal from yourself.

Khanna soon realized how much fear and toxic thoughts these words would implant in students’ minds.

 “This is not what we want sex education to be,” she said.

Now the President of Sexual Health Peers, Khanna initiates conversations about sexual health around campus. When talking about what she notices has been missing from the current sex education system, Khanna gave a wry smile.

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“I made a list, and I didn’t know where it stopped,” she said. “But it is improving. I know that change doesn’t happen all at once. There is a long way to go.”

The Keeping Youth Safe and Healthy Act, enacted last year, calls for comprehensive sexual health education from sixth to 12th grade. Despite a common misconception that beginning sex education early encourages children to engage in sexual activity, Cary Archer, manager of education and outreach at Planned Parenthood of Illinois, argued the opposite.

“Sex education is not just about telling kids condoms exist,” Archer said. “People tend not to have a good sense of when we talk about ‘comprehensive’ how many topics we’re talking about.”

He also said that by validating personal choices and focusing on consent, comprehensive sex education helps youth establish boundaries, prepares them for healthy relationships and thus delays the onset of sexual interaction.

However, enrolled in an Indian high school that did not offer sex education, Khanna said she learned about sex primarily from her friends and Facebook accounts where men embellished their sex life.

Kathryn Rhoades, graduate student in Education and sexual health graduate assistant at McKinley Health Center, said the Sexual Health Education Program faces a challenge to educate university students with a diverse backgrounds of knowledge. She said while some have had rich experiences with inclusive sex education, some have hardly been exposed to systematic anatomy.

“Our job is to provide the basics,” Rhoades explained. “We are trying to get a comprehensive sex education platform that dispels many common myths.”

Khanna said that when her sister had sex education in high school, the class was just a period of time spent merely displaying pictures of genital warts.

“My sister was really scared because the pictures didn’t make any sense to her,” Khanna recalled.

Archer said that the ineffective, negative abstinence-only programs have lasted many years. Fortunately, with the state bill requiring curriculum to align with the National Sex Education Standards, Archer noted that these backward techniques are disappearing from classrooms.

According to SIECUS, Illinois authorizes school districts to choose whether to provide sex education. If a school decides to teach, it must follow the required comprehensive guidelines.

Archer said that the optional inclusion of sex education leaves out essential subject matter. SIECUS report reveals that only 28 percent of Chicago schools cover every compulsory sex education theme in all grade levels.

On the other hand, Archer believes the bill brings forth high standards across the state. He said the inclusive curriculum clamps down on the stigmatization of LGBTQ+ youth.

“Although there are schools that opt out … I think for a lot of schools who might have been trying to engage with programming but weren’t sure what to do, the new guidelines provide a really clear roadmap for them,” Archer said.

Moreover, he points out that comprehensive sex education considers families primary educators. The opt-out policy guarantees parents or guardians’ right to remove their children from all sex education programs.

However, Khanna said her parents kept strict taboos about sex. She said that though she wishes her parents could have talked about her pleasure and boundaries, they always avoid mentioning these topics and refer to sex as “that” or “it” when they have to.

As a therapist in training, Rhoades recognizes sexual shame as one of the most significant challenges. She works to create inclusive, open conversations, reducing the stigma surrounding people curious about sex and sexuality.

Now leading Sexual Health Peers, Khanna attempts to free her community from sexual shame. She welcomes new members who usually get timid at first, encourages them to be vocal about sex and observes their growing knowledge and confidence.

“They’re helping other people, and they’re taking more responsibilities. I just love seeing that transformation from a shy person to a person who’s like ‘I know how to get this done,’” Khanna said. “Breaking that stigma does affect our lives in lots of ways that we might not even know.”

Rhoades adds that it is crucial not to pressure people to speak on private topics they are uncomfortable sharing.

“As a sex educator, you have to be a little bit vulnerable. You are going to talk about stigmatized topics,” Rhoades said. “But we make sure that all of our spaces are very safe to have those conversations.”

As Archer expects, comprehensive sex education consistently empowers and instructs young people to bring up conversations with adults and become educators for their peers.

“One great thing about young people is that they are curious,” Archer said. “They want accurate information so they can talk about sexual health in a really mature, respectful, insightful way.”


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