by Bella Ishanyan and Matan Josephy, Centerfold Editors
photo by Gianna Burgess
When then-freshman Jane Goldberg* started talking to a boy two years her senior over Snapchat, it was as an escape. He had added her one day under the guise of mutual friendships, and their conversations quickly became Goldberg’s escape from the loneliness she had been feeling constantly. When he asked her to hang out in-person, Goldberg quickly agreed ― and soon found herself picked up and snuck over into his bedroom.
As the two watched TV together, Goldberg turned to see him removing his clothes. Unsure of how to respond, she said nothing ― first as he finished removing his, and then as he took off her clothes as well. When he asked to have sex, she stayed silent, unsure of what to say in a situation that felt so new.
The boy took her silence as consent, and had sex with her.
Goldberg did not consent.
Commonplace in many aspects of the high school experience, sex and depictions of it are riddled within humor, history and the walls of bathroom stalls. However, its true nature is laden with pressure, fear and, at its root, a misunderstanding of boundaries, safety and pleasure.
Sexual education in schools is meant to provide students with the baseline understanding they need to safely navigate sex, yet many students and staff find the current curriculum inadequate and lacking comprehensiveness ― creating dangerous potential for risky behavior and the violation of safety.
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Within the District
Both health and sexual education in Newton only remain available for two or three trimesters of middle school and a quarter of freshman year — far below the National Health Education Standard’s recommendation for comprehensive, age-appropriate health education to be available from pre-K through 12th grade.
As a consequence, some in Newton, like Brown Middle School health teacher Elizabeth Messina, believe students should be taught a more comprehensive curriculum that prepares students for reality. Messina said that sex and health education should be implemented in more grades.
“Kids should have access to good information every year,” she said. “I would love to see comprehensive health [every year] in middle school through high school.”
Oak Hill Middle School health teacher Carly Gibson said that Newton’s lack of health education through high school may prevent students from being able to make safe choices and seek out adults they can trust past middle school.
“By the time [students] are in 10th, 11th, 12th grade, who are [they] going to? A teacher from ninth grade or eighth grade?” she said. “[Students] feel weird about doing that.”
The fact that Newton has minimal health and sexual education at the high school level is far from unique in the state. While Boston Public Schools, the largest district in the state, offers comprehensive health education from Pre-K through 12th grade, the only districts adjacent to Newton that offer comprehensive health and sexual education more than once throughout high school are Needham, where students undergo mandatory health education in 9th and 11th grades, and Weston, where health education is available in 9th, 10th and 11th grades.
Meanwhile, Brookline, Natick, Watertown, Waltham and Wellesley mimic Newton in only offering courses for one high school grade level.
Such a profound dropoff in health and sexual education at the high school level stands at odds with trends surrounding teenage sexual behavior. Results from the 2022 Youth Risk Behavior Survey in Newton indicate that 15% of high schoolers have had consensual sex, and figures from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) find that the average age for first-time sexual intercourse in the United States is approximately 17 years old.
This indicates that the access teens have to comprehensive sexual education in Newton decreases as they reach the age where they may become sexually active.
According to research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, upwards of 18% of girls and 3% of boys report having been victims of sexual assault or abuse at the hands of another adolescent. In Newton, figures from the 2022 Youth Risk Behavior Survey put the percentage of highschoolers who have engaged in nonconsensual sexual activity at 13% across genders.
While these figures within Newton rank below those of the nation, they still indicate that more than one in 10 teenagers in the City have experienced unwanted sexual activity — and that state and national trends surrounding consent involving teenagers extend to Newton as well.
. . .
Opinions regarding Newton Public Schools’ (NPS) sexual health curriculum vary across the district. Students’ opinions are split regarding the scope and responsibility of any sexual education that should be taught at school.
Some, like junior Esther Dansinger, view NPS’ curriculum more positively, with Dansinger saying that health teachers do the best they can given the circumstances to educate students
“They taught everything that could be taught,” she said. “There’s stuff that only you can figure out, like how to pick a partner that you actually want to have sex with.”
Meanwhile, senior Deborah Davis* said that while her experience with sex education in middle school was adequate, the curriculum omitted important information beyond the basics.
“I liked that they gave a decent run-through of birth control instead of just pushing abstinence, and I’m glad they stressed the importance of no STDs and no babies,” she said. “[But] they should’ve taught that birth control does not mean you should rawdog [the act of having sex without a condom].”
Senior Sylvie Nguyen said that her experience with health classes was insufficient, and did not acknowledge the full realities of what teens are experiencing.
“I feel like they don’t really acknowledge that people in high school are having sex,” she said. “Talking about real things like, ‘You might bleed for your first time’ or stuff like that [would be helpful], because a lot of kids might just go and start googling stuff and think they have cancer or something, but it’s really just normal and we haven’t learned about it,” she said.
Along with not recognizing teen sex, junior Amirah Pitts said that health class places a heavy emphasis on abstinence, creating large gaps within the curriculum and opportunities for misunderstanding. She said that it is important to create a culture of communication.
“A lot of teenagers I know are not abstinent, and so it leaves us with not a lot of information on what to do, and then we have to go to the internet,” she said. “It leads to a lot of unsafe decisions during sex for people who may not have an open conversation with their parents or anybody in their life, because they don’t really have anywhere to go to. There aren’t many resources.”
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A Crucial Component
The benefits of a comprehensive sexual education extend to the health and safety of entire communities, educators and medical professionals across Massachusetts, Alice Newton, the Medical Director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Child Protection Program, said. She said that comprehensive sexual education curricula can improve safety within schools.
“If [schools] have a really robust sexual education program that is modern and that knows what is out there in terms of understanding of human sexuality, then there’s less likely to be an atmosphere in a school where there’s bullying around a sexual assault and more likely to be peer support,” she said.
Stephanie Campbell, director of the Massachusetts Office of Sexual Health and Youth Development, said that sexual education is a necessary part of growing up.
“Education is an important stepping stone. I really believe that sexuality education should be treated just as we prepare our young people for how to drive a car safely. We talk about helmet safety, and I just see it [as] one of these life skills,” she said. “Providing spaces where young people can get answers to the questions that they ask is critical.”
A comprehensive sexual education curriculum, defined by the CDC, is a curriculum that contains “medically accurate, developmentally appropriate, and culturally relevant content and skills.” The effects are apparent: a 2016 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics cites reduced rates of adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in the communities that implement a comprehensive and evidence-based sexual education.
Massachusetts districts including Newton, have used programs like the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts’ comprehensive middle school health and sexual education curriculum titled Get Real. Programs like these are critical public health tools, Jennifer Hart, Vice President of Education for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said.
“[Comprehensive sexual education] increases teens’ use of protection methods, increases their confidence and skills in talking with parents and other caring adults in their life and helps them to engage in healthier relationships with their peers and their partners,” she said. “It can complement their ability to do better in school, to have healthier relations, to be able to set boundaries for themselves and to be able to advocate for themselves and their health.”
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A State of Failure
Despite the benefits of comprehensive sexual education’s implementation within schools, Massachusetts still lags severely behind widely-accepted public health benchmarks.
Under current state law, Massachusetts does not mandate nor actively incentivize the implementation of any degree of sexual education in schools. Instead, such decisions are left entirely up to municipal school boards and districts. Any sexual education schools implement is only required to explain the benefits of abstinence and have an opt-out policy for parents unwilling to allow their children to engage in it.
Current state guidelines surrounding broader health education have remained the same since their last revision in 1999, as a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education effort to revise them has stagnated for years.
Alice Newton said that Massachusetts’ decentralized approach to sexual education is problematic.
“There needs to be a uniform approach,” she said. “The fact that each school district gets to decide what they want to do means that they are vulnerable to people who are very socially conservative and don’t want their kids to know things … There’s definitely a subset of parents who think that if their kids don’t learn about sex, they won’t have sex, which I think we all know is not the case.”
While attempts to mandate uniform sexual education across the state have faltered, legislation to reform Massachusetts’ guidelines has slowly progressed. The most prominent of current efforts is the Healthy Youth Act, a proposal designed to update and redesign what supporters call ‘antiquated policy’ surrounding sexual education in the state.
“Massachusetts needs to pass the Healthy Youth Act,” Hart said. “If a school district does decide to provide sex education, the Healthy Youth Act ensures that the sex education that is provided is comprehensive, inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities and based in consent.”
The Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts is one of the Healthy Youth Act’s public coalition partners. Hart said that current events around the country make efforts to expand access to comprehensive sexual education even more critical.
“There’s a lot of urgency right now in expanding access to sex education,” she said, “particularly now, as sexual reproductive healthcare is actively restricted in other states.”
Meanwhile in Newton, the need for a more expansive health and sexual education is clear, but a lack of investment from the district presents a challenge, Gibson said.
“Every student in every school system should have health ed at least a few times a week, all year long, in every grade, but that involves money,” she said. “Schools put their money in math, science, English and social studies.”
NPS’ budget for the 2023 fiscal year reduced the district’s spending on resources for physical, wellness, and health education by 13.5%.
Beyond the middle school level, faculty at Newton’s high schools, like South health teacher Patrick Jordan-Quern, have also supported expanding sexual education. Jordan-Quern said that current health education offerings do a poor job of covering important topics.
“We need more of the mental health component instead of just ‘S.O.S.’ [‘Signs of Suicide’] and ‘healthy mind,’” Jordan-Quern said. “There’s all this stuff in between, and we need more support there.”
Students at South have also informed health educators of other components of the curriculum where they believe more time should be spent, Jordan-Quern said. However, he said that a lack of personnel and limited departmental resources have inhibited efforts to expand the course.
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Maneuvering the Maze
The implementation of a comprehensive sexual education is a critical component in educating teens about safe sexual practices. It ensures that teens are able to navigate sex in a responsible and comfortable manner and are aware of how to respond to unsafe situations, so that instances such as Goldberg’s can be avoided
After her experience, Goldberg said that she viewed sex negatively until she met somebody she felt she could be comfortable with.
“The story of what I consider losing my virginity was when I was in a healthy relationship with a girl who I was in love with and she was in love with me too,” she said. “This was my first time having consensual sex and it was her first time having sex at all. We were both still learning what we wanted and what we liked and it was a little scary to be that vulnerable with someone else but it was a really great experience. It made me see sex as something positive whereas before I saw it as something negative after my first experience.”
*Names changed to protect interviewee’s identity.