Sexual health Q & A

By Meklit Gebre-Mariam, 16, University HS
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I took health class two years ago in the summer and it was, well, I’m not sure exactly how to describe it. Class consisted of an excited teacher describing his sexual experiences from his teens to early adulthood to a mortified group of students. I can’t remember a single useful thing I learned about sex.

I’ll never forget the day our teacher stood on top of his desk and demonstrated how an Aztec woman gave birth while taking her rage out on her husband. He flailed his arms around like a lunatic, and then we had to endure a few moments of painful silence until the class finally erupted in laughter. But I don’t remember the reason for the detailed display or how it related to the lesson.

Since this was a health class, we also talked about drugs and healthy eating. But I feel as if we spent more time learning about marijuana than learning about birth control. We never learned how to put on a condom. We once briefly discussed a few sexually transmitted diseases but I don’t remember which ones. I was going to be a freshman that fall and being surrounded by juniors and seniors, I was way too scared to ask anything. And at the time I didn’t mind not knowing. I was 13 and I didn’t plan on having sex anytime soon so why bother learning it?

Now I’m a junior and Degrassi has been my sex education for the last four years. Degrassi, a Canadian teen drama on TeenNick, is about growing up and high school. They don’t just briefly mention sex, drugs and alcohol but go into detail. The plots revolving around sex and drugs aren’t made to glamorize them but to tell the truth. This show became my sex ed because it was so real. Some of the characters on the show had a tough time figuring out if they wanted to have sex for the first time. When I started high school I saw kids going through the same things as on the show. There were friends of mine deciding whether or not they would stay virgins and even a few went through pregnancy scares. I’m not even sure if I’d heard of the STD gonorrhea before one of the characters on the show got it the first time she had sex. Degrassi also changed my views on people with STDs. I had been judgmental. I assumed anyone who had an STD was a slut. But you can get an STD your first time. Degrassi showed that sex wasn’t some embarrassing thing I couldn’t talk about. But it was still something that I didn’t know a lot about.

TV and biology class taught me about STDs

What I know about AIDS and HIV—how it’s contracted (through unprotected sex) and how to protect yourself (using condoms, abstaining from sex), came from ninth grade biology. One day in class each student was given a Post-it with either a star or triangle on it. We had to shake hands with five different people and write down their symbol. Shaking hands represented unprotected sex. The triangle stood for HIV. By the end of the period, most of the class had shaken hands with someone with a triangle, symbolizing that they’d “contracted” HIV. It was scary to see how fast it spread. It made me realize how serious and easily contracted HIV is.

Everything I know (which isn’t much) about another STD, syphilis, comes from House, a show about an arrogant doctor who solves medical mysteries. One of House’s patients contracted it years before in her 20s. He prescribed some antibiotics. So, syphilis can be easily treated.

As for getting information about sex from my family? I live in a Christian home and I don’t feel comfortable talking to my parents about it. I know if I really wanted to, I could ask my mom but I don’t think I could bear the awkward conversation.

Even though I don’t know a lot, I feel I have more reliable information than my friends who are sexually active. I know girls my age who are sexually active who don’t know how a condom is supposed to be properly stored; condoms kept in wallets and glove compartments become easier to break, a fact I learned recently at an L.A. Youth staff meeting (condoms should be stored in a cool, dry place). When I told a friend, she was shocked. “Really?” she said.

“I know, I can’t believe it either,” I said.

“Wow,” she whispered.

I could tell why she was worried.

My friends also don’t understand that people with certain STDs may not know they have them because they don’t have visible symptoms. When I told my sexually active friend she should get tested for STDs, she said the guy she did it with “doesn’t have any.”

“Did he tell you he was a virgin?” I asked.

“He’s not,” she replied.

“Then why would you think he doesn’t have an STD?”

“There was nothing,” she said, a little annoyed. I dropped the conversation but it bothered me. Her “there was nothing” implied “it didn’t look like he had one,” which wasn’t good enough for me. I get that it’s scary to take a test but it’s even scarier to find out you have an STD that you could have been treated for earlier.

The things I know but my friends don’t, I have TV to thank for. But television doesn’t cover everything. I still have a ton of questions: Why are condoms only 98 percent effective? When they say condoms slip, is it because it wasn’t put on correctly or is it because the condom itself is slippery? Why do some girls’ first times hurt and not others? Is it because some have already broken their hymen (a thin membrane that covers the vagina)?

I tried to do some research for this article on the Internet. But I hate searching this stuff. The thought of seeing a picture of an STD breakout scares the heck out of me. And yes I may be overly dramatic, but I don’t know what to expect because I didn’t learn this in school.

We deserve better sex ed

I should have had better sex ed. And it’s not just me; many of my friends didn’t learn much in their sex ed classes either. I should have had a sex ed class that had in-depth discussions about STDs and the different ways teens can protect themselves. We should have had someone come from Planned Parenthood to explain the different services offered for teens at a health clinic. In the end, we should have been well informed and confident in the information we had learned.

I know that I won’t have sex in high school so why do I care if my questions are answered? The closest example I can come up with is an earthquake. You’re not planning for an earthquake but, you have canned food and water bottles in your kitchen so at least you know you’ll be prepared for one. If my questions are not answered now, then when? I don’t know about everyone else but I’d rather not be up the night before my wedding reading Sex for Dummies.

To read more of L.A. Youth’s coverage of sexual health and sex education …

Taking on teen pregnancy
. The play Ernesto, 17, was part of taught him and his classmates about the consequences of sex. WITH sidebar about the efffectiveness of different forms of birth control. (October 2009)

Acting against AIDS. Putting on a play made Jessica, 17, realize that teens are at risk and need to protect themselves. (January – February 2009)

Listen up about HIV and AIDS. As an AIDS educator Sasha, 18, wants teens to know they could be at risk and how to protect themselves. (November – December 2007)

Inside Planned Parenthood. A confidential visit to Planned Parenthood could be the answer to your questions about sexual health. (May – June 2005)

What you need to know about sexual health. Valentina interviewed Dr. Mark Schuster the author of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid They’d Ask. w/ list of clinics. (September 2004)

Why does my textbook tell us sex is dirty and bad? Robyn, 16, says her health textbook shouldn’t take a stand on whether teens should abstain from sex. (January – February 2004)