Baltimore high school students talk about gaps in sex-ed

Baltimore high school students talk about gaps in sex-ed

Last week I had a conversation about sex ed with three of my son’s friends who are all seniors at Baltimore City College high school. It’s not a scientific survey, of course, just a way to take the temperature, to find out what students are learning in their health classes—and perhaps more important, what they wished they had learned. Tali Spiliadis, 18, Kevin Scott, 17, and Ana Jeffries, 17, had all completed health, which has a sex-ed component. They had this to say. (Karen Houppert)

Tali: At City most take health as freshmen. At [Baltimore School for the Arts] most take it their senior year. That's really bad. Pretty much people have figured things out for them selves by then—and maybe not correctly.


City Paper: Do they have any place at school where there is free condom distribution?

Tali: Nurses are supposed to have condoms—and this is just a rumor but some nurses, and particularly the nurse at City, has called parents when students ask for condoms. She says no, and calls the kid's parents.

Ana: She doesn't give out Band-Aids or even an aspirin so I wouldn't put it past her! So I doubt she'd give out condoms.

Tali: Also it's not advertised that you can get condoms for free. No one told us you can get condoms from the nurse, not in our sex ed class or anywhere else I can think of.

Tali: I took health last year. Most interesting class I've had. The class itself wasn't very good but I was excited for it to be good. I was excited to take the class because I was always interested in sex and was excited to learn about things . . . [but] it was not very productive.

Ana: Honestly, they didn't spend a lot of time on sex ed in health. We spent like a week on it. Or maybe, maybe two or three weeks. But it was a lot shorter than any other unit. Which I thought was ridiculous. I feel like it should be its own class. Instead, they spend a lot of time talking about other things.

Tali: Emotions.

Kevin: Food. Your bones.

Tali: And BMI [Body Mass Index]—which is weird.

Kevin: Why do we need this info about BMI? And when they talked about sex, it was mainly sexually transmitted diseases. Nothing else, just STDs, that's it.

Ana: They tell you you need to use condom but they never told kids where to get them. And dental dams, they tell you about that.

Kevin: What?

Ana: Dental dams—something you put in mouth while having oral sex with girl. But they don't tell you where to get these things.

Tali: First we learned about genitalia and had to learn all the names for all parts, which I thought [was] cool because everybody thinks the vagina is everything.


Ana: I can name all the parts. It's one of my special skills.

Tali: Then they talked about STIs, pregnancy and the process of that—and all of the dif methods of contraception.

Ana: They didn't talk about abortion.

Kevin: My class didn't either.

Tali: Also, I was so outraged about this, never once—not one time—in my entire health class did they mention consent. I took my teacher aside after class one day and said, I know this isn't part of curriculum but consent is so important.

Ana: Or even talk about what consent is. Like, they should be explaining consent. "We are about to have sex, do you want to have sex?" "Yes, I want to." That is consent.

Tali: And being drunk is not consent and people don't know that. It wasn't talked about at all. They didn't talk about rape or sexual assault, at all, either.

Ana: I think they think, if we give [students] a lot of info [they] will go out and have sex. Every year there is someone who gets pregnant. Or one who we know about. Or other kids who could get pregnant and no one knows. I did not know I could purchase condoms at any age.

Kevin: I did not know. I didn't know you could get them.

Tali: In our class, they said you can purchase condoms. It is completely legal and if some person in a store tells you you can't then you should call Better Business Bureau and say so. You should report them.

Ana: [My teacher] was really uncomfortable talking about sex. She is the dance teacher, but she needed to have other classes, so they were like, "Hey, teach health." . . . They talked about your menstrual period as normal and about masturbation as normal. But they didn't say anything positive, like having sex is a normal part of growing up.

Kevin: They're really conservative about it.

Ana: I remember, we had to sign a form before we learned sex ed in middle school. I think that's ridiculous. Your parents aren't going to sign form for biology and English—and this is just as important. You need to know what your bits are. If something is wrong you should know.

CP: If you were designing your own sex-ed program, what would it be like?

Tali: It would be for at least a semester or a full year for sex ed because there's that much to talk about and more.

Ana: Also, they should talk about the implications of sex. Like what it means to actually share your body with someone. Cuz sex is weird. It can be awkward and uncomfortable sometimes. And I'm not saying all sex has to be meaningful, but it is something private you're doing with someone. . . . They don't talk about that in sex ed classes. And they may talk about waiting until you're ready—but they don't talk about how to know when you're ready. Not even, like, because I want to or because my partner wants to. Or the difference between that and being like, "I've got to do it because I'm a senior—"

Kevin: Because you're going off to college.

Tali: Also, as a queer person, they didn't talk about that. They only talked about if you're a gay man and getting HIV, nothing if you're a woman. I had an issue with the fact that they're using a very binary way of talking about it, always just saying "a man and woman," and never acknowledging anything but being straight—or sometimes a gay man.

Ana: And when it came to talking about affirmative consent, that did not transpire.

Tali: And there were kids in class that badly needed to be educated about this. They would make jokes. Kids would say stuff, but, in that class I was constantly seeing kids touching each other and saying, "Don't touch me." And the kid would just ignore her. Or hugging each other and not letting go, even if someone wanted it to stop. Because none of this was learned. And lot of times the person would be like, "Get off me!" And it would just be like a joke. I could imagine that going into a more sexual scenario.

Ana: And you would see couples in the hallway and someone would try to grab someone else's butt and just laugh. And it's like no, that's not OK . . . They leave a lot out, knowing how to interact, not just on a sexual level but on a human level, this is what is acceptable and what is not.

Kevin: The whole consent thing leads a lot of teenagers to feel uncomfortable. . . . Me personally, I'm not even comfortable talking about it or about sex because I haven't really had any prior teaching. Like talking to your partners, how to do that.

Tali: No one teaches us how to communicate with a partner. That's hard.


Kevin: I guess I'll learn.

Ana: Or if you know what you want, then there's the stigma of asking for it, of how forward this girl is. She's a whore. [If a girl has had multiple partners] people will say, "Oh my god, who? Why has she had sex with so many people?" And your sexual life and your romantic life can be separate things. Who I am as a person can be not related to my sexual life. It suddenly becomes super sexualized on one hand or "Oh my God! You never had sex? You must be a prude."

Tali: It's important to bring up dichotomy between guys and girls who slept with a lot of people. But people say, it's fine if you're a guy and "Oh my God, gross" if a girl's been with lot of people.

Ana: When a guy has slept with a lot of people, he's a real man. And girls have said, "I don't want to have sex with a guy who hasn't been with lot of girls because won't be experienced." But you don't hear that the other way around.

Tali: And I do know that bisexual boys are treated terribly on the sexual scene.

Kevin: I hear people say "faggy" all the time.

Ana: And even people themselves say it, say, "faggy" or, "Hey, stop being gay." And how does that happen? How do you stop being gay? That doesn't make sense. Or girls will say, "I don't want to be with him because he been with a guy."

Tali: . . . Queer women, gay women at school and in general that I've witnessed have been more sexualized and gay men have been secluded into their own corner, not allowed to engage with rest of community or to talk about sex at all. I'm the president of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at school and what we do is, we have weekly meetings and we talk about issues in the LGBT community and our own experiences in a safe space and we also do events for school. Like National Coming Out Day, make it clear that there are not just two or three identifies but many identities. We also have Day of Silence in April, day where a lot of people will not speak in alliance with the people who have not been allowed to express their own identities. We do presentations through different classes throughout school in advance of the day. We give people ribbons, a black ribbon to show your support by being silent. White means you're in support but you're going to speak anyway. And you don't have to wear a ribbon.

CP: Do they talk about abstinence?

Tali: Yes—

Ana: —they do.

Tali: They're very clear, it's the only way to be 100 percent safe.

Kevin: That's what they emphasize the most in sex ed.

Ana: They make sex sound so scary, this horrible thing that can lead to a baby or disease. Like that's the only option you have.

Tali: And they don't talk about how to make it less scary. . . . It's important to talk about how to protect yourself from scary things but they don't talk about pleasure. They don't talk about ways to make sex more pleasurable. They don't talk about lube and don't ever get into sex toys or anything like that. They won't talk about anything that is part of real life when it comes to sex.

Ana: Or talk about being a selfless lover. Boys will talk about it like, "I put it in and I take it out" and that's it, not like making people comfortable. I'm not saying all sex is wonderful all time, but . . .

Tali: They could be talking about the pleasure part of it, explaining why that's important.

Ana: I think it's the teachers that are uncomfortable because they don't want to get called by a parent or by the administration. Our school is very weird not only about our voices but teachers' voices. I think a lot of the teachers are—[Her phone rings.] I can't not answer the phone, it's my mother!

Kevin: The older teachers are more open with what they can say—they could probably talk their way out of it—but younger teachers are more like, "I can't really talk to you the way I want." [burping] That's off the record.

Tali: I felt like there was at least one class where there was a student who was being quietly bullied by whole class and the teacher. It was just kind of weird. That's all it was. I didn't feel like it was a safe environment.

Ana: I think it's really hard to create a safe environment. High school is hard. Kids are mean. They're awful and harsh. [laughs] My sex-ed teacher tried to—good ole college try—with it, making an attempt to say we shouldn't make jokes and stuff. But it's difficult when a teacher is uncomfortable talking about sex. It's all about, "I'm going to talk and you're going to listen and take a test in a week." Sex is talked about in a very sterile way.

Tali: We don't do that in all our classes. In English we can really talk about how we feel and the nitty gritty of our books in English class.

Kevin: But we can't about sex in health.

Tali: This is kind of weird but our generation, for the most part, is more sexually liberated, more willing to talk about this stuff. . . . But it's also possible we are just young and going through puberty and everybody's horny. But we are willing to talk about it, but the adults around us more conservative. It's a weird divide between the generations.

Ana: . . . Still, the main thing is for schools, we are going to do it anyway so you should really be trying to educate us.

Tali: Biology does something.

CP: Did you have a demonstration of how you use a condom?

Ana: We didn't.

Kevin: We didn't do the condom thing.

Tali: My teacher did. She stretched the condom over her whole arm and said, "Don't let anyone tell you they're 'too big.'"

Ana: We didn't do any condom demonstration.

Tali: With the birth video, they started by saying, "Don't anybody freak out. Grooming was different back then."

Ana: What? People's vaginas haven't changed!

Tali: What it was was that [the woman giving birth] hadn't shaved her pubic hair. . . . And with that birth video....I've seen a birth in real life. I'm a doula. But they made [having a baby] look really easy in the video. The lady was like, "Ooh" for a minute and then the baby was out. It looked really easy.

Ana: They also don't talk about pregnancy as a natural thing. Like they talk about first trimester, second, third. Like, you're going to get bigger, these are the stages, but they don't talk about how your body is going to change. Your bladder going to be different and stuff. . . . You should talk about after pregnancy and how the body changes back—but not like a quick rubber-band effect.


Kevin: I never knew that.

Tali: I know a lot of people who think sex will never be good again after you have a baby.

Ana: I hate how people say, "Oh, she has a loose vagina." But no, that means you're comfortable, that means it's a good thing.

Tali: Thank you! [Ana and Tali high-five]

Ana: It's not like a banana through a keyhole. "Loose," that word, I hate that.

Tali: There are a lot of misconceptions that kids need to understand. People need to talk about this. Then you can have conversations.

Ana: [Laughs] Because I'm pretty sure we just gave Kevin some sex ed he didn't have.

Kevin: Wow, that happens, I didn't know. It's true. . . . And it would help to be 100 percent sure how to put a condom on for that first time.

Ana: I feel like City does it at the right time, freshman year.

Tali: We have all these issues with sex ed because it's full of these issues but there are states with abstinence only, plenty of states where it's literally not required for them to tell the truth to students.

Ana: And the internet is good but bad. [She's read on the internet that if one drinks "a ton" of Mountain Dew sperm count goes down and that you can't get pregnant if you have sex in a hot tub.] Ridiculous.

Kevin: Ah ha!

Tali: See Laci Green [a sex-education activist]. She's good.

Kevin: I got most of my information from "American Pie."

Ana: That's bad. I'll admit I read my sister's diary, and used the internet and older friends.

Tali: Some of that could be really accurate but some could be wrong.

Ana: And some get their info from porn.

Tali: Ha! Most people don't wear stilettos when having sex.

Kevin: And people don't realize then that a penis [is] not that big.

CP: So what do you think is the most important thing sex-ed classes should do?

Kevin: Demonstrate how to use a condom. That's the most important thing. And also, to talk about consent. And again, they should talk about pleasure on both sides. And just being comfortable talking to your partner about what to do and not do.

CP: Do they talk about sexual assault?

Ana: Hardly at all. And the thought of going to college is terrifying. This sounds awful. I hate that I have to feel that way, that my first thought is I have to constantly be on alert and afraid. The whole at a party thing, telling girls, "don't put your drink down." That's a terrifying feeling. I enjoy taking walks at night but I've been told my whole life, "be careful and watch out."

Tali: I picked a college that I thought would be  a safer space. I'm fairly certain I'm going to New College in Florida. . . . College students in particular, you're just finding your feet and some girls have experiences so traumatic at that point in your life. Some boys too. Then there's the slut-shaming and victim-blaming.

Ana: "What were you wearing? Did you agree to go back with him?" Why would people think that if you go somewhere that means consent?

Kevin: Because they had bad sex ed—and no one talked about it.

Note: Cindy Harcum, principal of Baltimore City College high school, emailed this response regarding the students' comments: "Sex education is a part of the health curriculum and is taught by a certified health instructor. The topics you mention are included however the extent of the coverage and the consistency within the curriculum is something we plan to address in our curriculum review this summer with the science department. The nurse, a professional assigned from the Health Dept, never contacts a parent related to administration of personal hygienic items such as condoms or sanitary. Parental contact would involve injury, illness, or dispensing medication only."