Toy Rollins knew she had to find some way to talk to her two older daughters about sex after she learned her children’s Atlanta-area charter school wasn’t planning to teach a robust sex education curriculum.
Rollins, who also grew up in Georgia, said she expected her children to get the same sex education she did, which included information about anatomy, reproduction and birth.
“I was waiting for when my kids were going to have that curriculum (to talk with them about it),” she said. “With everything else our school offers with innovations in technology, I thought this would definitely be a part of the core curriculum. And I was truly disappointed and just didn’t understand.”
Frustrated, but feeling like she was “late to the conversation” about sex, she turned to other parents and her neighbor – a former sex educator at Planned Parenthood – to set up a series of workshops for students from 3rd grade and up.
A group of nearly 100 parents joined together to plan the workshops for their kids. More than 200 students attended them.
“I want other kids in my neighborhood to be educated too because these are going to be the kids that [my children] are in contact with,” Rollins said. “Some kids may have [a good sexual education] and some may not. You know kids are going to talk. They may be confused as to who to believe.”
While sex education in the South often fails to prepare young people for their first sexual encounter, there are concerned students, parents and nonprofit organizations working to provide more comprehensive sex education across the region.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found abstinence-based sex education does little to curb the numbers of sexually transmitted infections diagnosed or delay a person’s age of first intercourse. Where the government has failed to educate, people are stepping up to ensure more young people have the information they need to make good decisions about sex.
Only 28 states in the U.S. require sex education to be taught in school. And 35 states require that schools focus on abstinence when sex education or HIV/STI instruction is provided, according to analysis by Sex Education for Social Change (SIECUS), an advocacy group dedicated to medically accurate sex education.
Most states in the South are among those that require any sex education discussion to emphasize abstinence, including Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana and Kentucky.
Rollins said she thinks some parents may be hesitant to have Planned Parenthood talk to their third graders about “sex education” because they don’t want the information to be “too much too soon.” However, she said the information the organization presents to young children focuses on the anatomical names for body parts and identifying what constitutes “appropriate touching.”
Rollins hosted the meeting for third grade girls. She said she was impressed with how the girls were able to open up, but also impressed with how the teacher handled the more advanced questions about sex.
“For the third graders we were focused on anatomy and hygiene and things like that. We didn’t go into sex. One of the kids did ask about sex and the way she handled it was great. She gave them the answer to the question that they were asking, but she told them ‘hey we’re going to build on this,’” she said.
These conversations about sex education are often inhibited – not by students’ disinterest in the subject – but by leaders’ concerns about upsetting school board members or church members.
Implementing better sex education is not just a problem in the South, said Jennifer Driver, vice president of policy and strategic partnerships for SIECUS. Driver said even more “progressive” or urban school districts, such as the state of New York, have struggled to pass and implement better sex education models.
Groups dedicated to providing accurate sex education have received push back from school districts, according to those who do this kind of work.
“The biggest pushback we get so often for us even entering the building is, ‘What will my board think? What will our supporters think? What will our funders think? About even talking about LGBTQ issues,” said Amanda Keller, Director of the Magic City Acceptance Center. MCAC, which is part of Birmingham AIDS Outreach, provides comprehensive, LGBTQ-inclusive sex education and free STI and HIV testing.
“The idea of talking about sex with young people is just terrifying to a whole subset of our population. As long as those people are still in power, [young people] will not be ready. In terms of the students and families being ready, they are not only ready but they need it, and it’s urgent.”
Jarvis Prewitt, a student at Alabama A&M University described sex education as “a matter of life and death.” He said the issue of sex education extends beyond high school and onto college campuses.
While attending Huffman High School in Birmingham, Ala., Prewitt was a member of Teen Advocates for Sexual Health (TASH), a peer education program facilitated by Planned Parenthood Southeast.
Prewitt joined the program when he was a freshman and stayed in the program until he graduated from high school in 2019. Members of TASH learn medically accurate information about sexual health and sexuality and learn how to be advocates for their community and peers.
Armed with this knowledge, Prewitt said his friends would often ask him questions about sex. If he didn’t already know the answer, he could go to his TASH leaders at Planned Parenthood to get an answer.
“Word got out that Jarvis knows a little something about sex education,” he said, explaining how students would come to him with questions about different types of birth control and condoms. “It was like me teaching my own class. It was actually fun, and the ‘students’ were all my friends.”
Now, Prewitt is studying mechanical engineering at Alabama A&M University. But his work of helping his peers better understand safer sex is not over.
“You would think by the time everyone is in college, they know a little something. Being at a predominately Black institution, I know that the Black community has higher rates of HIV. A lot of people are still not aware of the correct way to practice safe sex and consent. I am able to share the word regardless,” Prewitt said.
Prewitt continues to distribute condoms and dental dams from Planned Parenthood to friends and classmates who need them.
Of the nearly 38,000 new HIV infections recorded in 2018, 51 percent were in the South, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The states with the highest per capita rates of new HIV infections in 2018 include Mississippi, Georgia and Florida.
When it comes to new cases in the South, 52 percent of those cases were among African Americans, according to the CDC. CDC data shows African Americans account for a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses and people with HIV, compared to other ethnicities.
Having good information about STIs, HIV and consent are all parts of a well-rounded sex education.
Prewitt said inclusion of LGBTQ identities and providing LGBTQ-inclusive sex education is also a matter of life and death for young people.
“We’re talking about preventing suicides going on right now in high schools,” he said. “A lot of individuals don’t feel accepted because of their LGBTQ status. If you want to make a difference, start by taking a look at the statistics. Be the change you want to see. Open your own life to the change that needs to appear. Change needs to happen.”
Along with Planned Parenthood Southeast, the Magic City Acceptance Center in Birmingham is also working to provide and promote LGBTQ-inclusive sex education.
The group‘s monthly sex education events and any in-person events are on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, but some virtual events are held through social media platforms.
In addition to promoting LGBTQ-inclusive education curricula, MCAC is also working to lead sex education workshops in local schools. The group held one of these workshops at Indian Springs School in Pelham, Alabama in spring 2020.
Keller said a lot of the students recognized the need to have better conversations about sex education in the classroom. She said some of them said they’d never had a sex ed conversation at school.
“Most students don’t get any access to safe sex [education] at all in their schools, and when we survey we find that they don’t get anything that’s LGBTQ–inclusive at all,” said Amanda Keller, Founding Director of the Magic City Acceptance Center. MCAC supports LGBTQ youth through workshops, education and free STI testing.
While most Southern states don’t require sex education in school, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas specifically prohibit including or normalizing non-heterosexual sexual activity in their curricula.
Alabama law requires schools offering sex education “to emphasize that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”
While there are great online resources for comprehensive sex education, Keller said she thinks it’s important for students to be able to ask questions in a personal setting with an educator they trust.
“There’s really great LGBTQ-affirming information that people can find on YouTube communities, but there’s so much misinformation too,” she said. “To be able to actually have that conversation out loud in a classroom normalizes the conversation and makes it less stigmatized. It makes it less shameful.”
The path to better sex education
Atlanta parents Bonnie Heath and Rob Lamb have used books to talk to Sebastian, their 8-year-old son, about sex. The books aren’t intimidating for parents or children, and she keeps them in her son’s bookcase for him to access at any time.
“We’ve been really big proponents of using the correct term for son’s body parts,” Heath said. “Our son is adopted and we feel the same way about adoption talks as sex talks. They should come often and in age appropriate bits.”
Talking to children about sex can be scary for parents, but there are materials available to make the conversation easier.
Planned Parenthood Southeast started offering free online sex education this year and interest in the classes is growing, said Barbara Ann Luttrell, the organization’s director.
“For parents raising children and teens in Southeast, they themselves didn’t get quality sex education. Most parents want their children to have access to accurate comprehensive sex education. For parents who are looking for better materials, they’re forced to go rogue and find that themselves. We want to provide access to materials for those people,” Luttrell said.
Some parents may have something to learn from the sex education materials Planned Parenthood provides. Coi Jones, Health Educator at Planned Parenthood Southeast, said she’s had parents come to her with their own questions after holding an event geared toward children.
“They come up to me with questions. People learn through their kids,” she said.
Looking for better sex education resources? We’ve got it covered.