Let’s Talk About Sex
“My high school told us that birth control gives you cancer and blood clots,” said Makayla Haussler ’19. “Which it doesn’t, unless you’re over forty and have smoked a pack a day for many years. And in health class they had us each put on a rubber glove, to represent a condom, and then walk around shaking hands with people. One glove secretly had a tiny hole in it, so everyone ended up getting an STI.”
Haussler is one of many Yale students whose high schools offered incomplete, inaccurate, or abstinence-only sex education. The result is a freshman class with widely varying levels of knowledge. Universities across the country struggle to provide comprehensive sexual education, especially for students who didn’t receive that in their high schools.
These programs often come in the form of Sex Weeks. Started at Yale in 2002, “sex weeks” include sessions that range from safe sex practices to hook-up culture to the ethics of pornography. In 2015, Northwestern University introduced a free, animated online class for freshmen about sexual and reproductive health.
In 2005, researchers Cheryl Somers and Amy Surmann at Wayne State University found a strong link between limited sexual health education–especially when taught too late into high school–and sporadic use of protection. Although an abstinence-only education might delay teens’ first sexual experience, it may reduce their use of protection once they become sexually active.
Many students like Haussler, who is from Lincoln, Nebraska, come from towns where the local school board controls sexual education. The curriculum often reflects the political leanings of the area. School districts in the Northeast are more likely to offer comprehensive sexual education than their southern counterparts. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only a small fraction of southern school districts teach comprehensive sexual education while most preach abstinence.
The Reagan administration provided the first federal funding in 1981, for local programs that encouraged “chastity and self-discipline” to reduce teenage pregnancy. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act–when Bill Clinton was President and Newt Gingrich was House Speaker–gave 440 million dollars to local sexual education programs that condemned premarital sex.
Today, seven in ten Americans oppose using federal funds to promote abstinence-only practices. But three-quarters of public high schools teach abstinence as the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and STIs.
In fact, most Americans—Democrats and Republicans, Catholics and evangelicals – support comprehensive sexual education, according to Planned Parenthood and the National Women’s Law Center.
Despite this broad base of support, millions of high school students receive inadequate sexual education. Students arrive at Yale from every state in the country. Some were taught that abstinence was the only option while others became familiar with affirmative consent and birth control.
Annie Cheng ’20 attended high school in Polk County, Florida, where teen pregnancies are common. The local schools teach abstinence-only sexual education. And the results speak for themselves–in her town of 100,000 people, there is a high school dedicated to educating teen mothers.
“I remember once asking a question about condoms, and I was told my question was not allowed to be answered,” Cheng said. She believes the more conservative values of the school board members who designed the curriculum do not align with the liberal views of high school students.
“The school board and educational system can’t push conservative values on us. Kids grow up liberal because of the media we’re exposed to, and the educational curriculum needs to be as progressive as the kids are,” she said.
Victoria Quintanilla ’20 is from a county in southern Texas that is in the top quintile for teen pregnancy rates. Her school had a health class, but it was optional. Students often opted for APs or other advanced classes instead.
“Everything except abstinence was kind of taboo,” Quintanilla said. “When kids who took classes at the local college discovered there were free condoms, it was a huge shock.”
One of Yale’s goals for Freshman Orientation is to educate the class on the school’s sexual culture and policies. While its resources on sexual health and practices are available to everyone, they are especially important for students who received minimal or misleading education in high school. One workshop run by the Community Health Educators (CHEs) demonstrates how to use a condom and includes a discussion about different types of birth control.
The other, run by the Communication and Consent Educators (CCEs), is called “The Myth of Miscommunication.” This workshop teaches the idea of affirmative consent, which Yale defines as “positive, unambiguous, and voluntary agreement to engage in specific sexual activity throughout a sexual encounter.” Yale introduced affirmative consent as official policy in 2011. Affirmative consent became the legally mandated standard for all schools in Connecticut in 2016.
Transitioning to a school where policies like affirmative consent are openly discussed can be hard for people with limited sexual education like Taylor Church ’18, a CCE, who attended an all-girls Catholic school in rural Maine.
“The condom demonstration in the CHE workshop was a first for me. I had no idea that they had expiration dates. I didn’t know that STI testing was normal and a good idea,” she said.
She also appreciated the CCE workshop’s emphasis on consent. “The CCE workshop reshaped my experiences and gave me the vocabulary to describe them. I felt like I knew a lot more and was a lot more prepared for Yale afterwards,” she said.
Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd runs the Office of Gender and Campus Culture, which oversees the CCE program.
“We do not expect Freshman Orientation to be the answer to the complexities of student life,” she said. “We think of it as scaffolding that students can build on, and give them a shared language. There’s no way to dictate to students how to live their lives, let alone their sex lives.”
A major goal of the CCE workshop is to be accessible to students with different experiences in sexuality and varying expectations for college.
“Every time we do the workshop, we get a card from a student who says ‘I’m abstinent and this doesn’t apply to me,’” Josh McGilvray ’18, a CCE, said. “The goal is to ease people into the conversation, and for that reason we don’t want to normalize sex, but we want to establish a culture where sex isn’t scary.”
The CHE program is also sensitive to the wide variety of student backgrounds. “We discuss the parts of people’s backgrounds that may make certain things more intimate, including religion and conservative family members,” said CHE Jason Morris ’17. “I’ve definitely had some kids who were quiet and were obviously not super comfortable talking about sex, but I haven’t had a student challenge the idea of discussing sex at all.”
Freshman orientation used to include more detailed sessions, particularly about birth control, but those were dropped in part after complaints to Boyd’s office that this excluded queer students. Intensive sexual education can also form a divide between students who already know the information and those receiving it for the first time.
“There is such a diversity of knowledge in incoming students. If we were to slow it down, there’s no time, and it might set up an uncomfortable dynamic,” said Chamonix Adams-Porter, Student Affairs Fellow in the Office of Gender and Campus Culture. “We want to make sure people don’t feel talked down to, while others feel they are being singled out.”
Beyond official programs, the university also counts on informal education to fill in the gaps for students. “The learning that you do at Yale is very rarely filtered through a mandatory workshop,” Adams-Porter said.
Maria Trumpler, Director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources and a senior lecturer in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, believes this informal education is more effective. “At a college age, having someone talk at you doesn’t work. Peer-educators, with the ability to have one-on-one conversations, are more effective,” she said.
“Within the context of what’s possible in Freshman Orientation, we’ve pushed the limit of the amount of sexual education,” Boyd said.
And it’s true that with the two workshops and Bystander Intervention training for sophomores, Yale outpaces most universities in mandatory sexual education. Many universities rely on high school sexual education programs or use short online programs instead of the more thorough workshops run by CHEs and CCEs. Students seem to agree that the workshops done during Freshman Orientation are well-done and cover the important topics.
“Yale made sure every person got the education. Nobody won’t know what is and isn’t acceptable in sexual conduct,” said Gabe Malek ’16. “I think it’s good they did it in two sessions—health and consent—because they hit all the main things. If anything, they should devote more time to consent, because it can’t be stressed enough.”
And though Yale may set an example for other universities, many on campus still see room for improvement. “I wish Yale offered non-credit sex-ed classes in a way that was considered cool and fun,” Trumpler said.
Tracy George, Health Educator for Student Wellness at Yale Health, often has one-on-one meetings with students about sexual health concerns. “I’m very limited in capacity in my office, but in hopes that my staff grows—meaning, if I can get the funding to hire more health educators, then I would love to ramp up sexual health offerings and reintroduce more regular sexual health workshops on campus.”
Yale’s efforts defy a national trend. Fewer and fewer teenagers between 2006 and 2013 received education on contraception, STIs, and consent. Depending on where they come from, some students arrive at college safer than others. The CCE and CHE workshops help to fill in the gaps. By mandating sex education, Yale is ahead of the curve.