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Gaps in Wisconsin students’ sex ed inspires improvement on and off campus

Sex ed evokes different memories for different people — some may recall putting condoms on bananas or having a teacher reminiscent of Mean Girls’ Coach Carr who warned, “Don’t have sex because you will get pregnant and die.” For some, memories of sex ed may be absent because it wasn’t provided.

Some teachers, like Madison West High School’s Scott Maier, are trying to broaden sexuality education’s (sex ed) traditional script. For one day each semester, Maier brings the Gay Straight Alliance into his health classroom to talk about sexuality.   

Despite Maier and other teachers’ efforts at expanding curriculum, sex ed often lags behind, leaving some students without proper education. 

Wisconsin’s sex ed varies largely across the state, according to Cindy Kuhrasch, a faculty associate in the UW-Madison Kinesiology Department which includes the health education minor. Course length and content depends on the educator and influence from outside forces, like school boards and review committees, she said. 

Additionally, Wisconsin high schools are often limited to teaching an abstinence-only curriculum. Wisconsin state law only requires HIV education, not sex ed, and outlines that abstinence should be stressed as a means of protection. 

“Someone could have a wonderful sex education and 30 miles away someone could be taught that their gender and sexuality is completely invalid and not worth discussing in class,” said Madison Neinfeldt, a facilitator at UW Madison’s Sex Out Loud, an organization that promotes safe, healthy sexual practices on campus. 

Neinfeldt explained it is not uncommon for students to come to college having missed the proper sex ed for their gender or sexuality, or, like her, not received it altogether. Her own lack of education was one reason Neinfeldt joined Sex Out Loud, and she hopes the organization helps other students reflect on their own education and think about their current relationship with sexual knowledge, health and orientation.

UW-Madison students look back on Sex Ed

Izzy Owza is a UW-Madison sophomore who attended James Madison Memorial High School. She said her sex ed covered all kinds of contraception and addressed men and women similarly, but was skewed to place more responsibility on women.  

“Anything that was protection-oriented was focused on the girl, so we didn’t really talk about a man’s responsibility in being safe,” she said.

Neinfeldt said men and women often hear different messages in sex ed, as there is a gendered societal reaction to being sexually active, with women typically taught in a way that devalues their body. 

She said curriculums that stress abstinence can disproportionately implicate women because they value women who wait to have sex while devaluing women who lose their virginity.

“I’ve had friends who have had their bodies compared to a chewed-up piece of gum,” she said.

Almost everyone has some gaps in the sex ed they received, especially for queer students whose identities weren’t addressed as fully, Neinfeldt said. She said this can be dangerous because these students aren’t getting the tools to understand how to be safe with their bodies and other peoples’ bodies.  

“They’re also kind of being, in a more undercover way, being taught that their sexual preference and way of living is less valuable and not as valid,” she said.

Maier said he wishes he could do more, like having GSA visit his classroom for a week instead of a day, but there isn’t enough time when students are only required to take one semester of health.  

However, he said health education is constantly evolving through continuous conversations about gaps and improvements.

Sex Ed Reform: Campuswide, statewide and worldwide

Last February, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) updated their recommendations for how sex ed should be taught to align with the idea of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). CSE moves beyond HIV prevention to reaffirm sex ed within a framework of human rights and gender equality.

There is significant evidence that sex ed has positive effects — it increases knowledge and improves attitudes regarding sexual and reproductive health and behaviors, according to UNESCO.

Echoing the work being done at the international level, Sex Out Loud is trying to remedy students’ high school sex ed by providing sex-positive, pleasure-focused sex ed to UW students through peer-to-peer facilitated programs and other events, Neinfeldt said.  

While she recognizes Sex Out Loud’s education model is difficult to apply in high school education, she said schools can still take steps to destigmatize conversation around STIs and contraception.

Kuhrasch said that health education within Wisconsin is undergoing its own shift — away from content-based learning toward skill-based learning. Instead of being presented with information, students will learn to assess its accuracy and analyze influences that factor into health decisions.

“This is one of the things I like about Wisconsin —  even if it is getting kind of wonky in terms of being politicized — it doesn’t matter really what the politics are as long as we maintain a strong commitment to the skill development for these students,” Kuhrasch said. 

Maier said West High School is more progressive than surrounding schools and has adopted skill-based learning, but because it isn’t mandatory for schools to follow the standards, there are “inconsistencies” in Wisconsin’s health education. Despite this, he believes progress has been made. 

“The health education that I walked into 13 years ago at West High School was horrendous, and I’m really proud of where we’ve come from,” he said. 

Owza said she was thankful her high school presented sex ed in an unbiased way, giving students the information to use how they please in future decisions.

“I guess my big takeaway is it’s just important to make sure everyone has all the resources but not [to] have your own moral or social dispositions [while teaching],” she said. 

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