Students yearn to learn about sex

Theresa Montgomery

Talking with students about sex is a challenge for health educators.

Researchers here are finding that in a classroom setting, societal constraints and personal inhibitions curb conversation and limit information,

“We assume those norms unconsciously, and sometimes, when we’re embarrassed, very consciously,” visiting scholar Jean Baxsen said.

In her native South Africa, prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS have grown exponentially.

“The highest, fastest-growing rate is among youth,” Baxsen said.

Baxsen researched the interactive dynamics in the classroom between teachers and students who were discussing risk factors and sexual behaviors.

In the schools she visited, “across the board – whether primary or secondary schools, urban or rural settings, male or female students and teachers – the official message was the same,” she said.

The content was accurate: How you can and can’t get HIV/AIDS and how to prevent contracting it.

“These kids have a lot of knowledge,” Baxsen said, “but it’s not translating into practice.”

She focused on the teacher and the dialogue. She recognized a problem: The incongruity between “what teachers do and what they think they’re doing.”

The effect of teachers’ behavior on the flow of discussion and the response of students were cyclically linked, Baxsen observed.

In her individual interviews with teachers, she found they very much realized and appreciated the importance of teaching students to understand both the behaviors which would place the students at risk of contracting HIV and those which prevent infection.

The teachers’ earnestness was evident to Baxsen – so was their discomfort.

It was that discomfort, Baxsen observed, that prevented teachers from getting across to their students the very lessons they sought to instill.

“Her behavior seemed embarrassed,” Baxsen said of one teacher she observed.

Discussing HIV/AIDS and sexuality with students caused the teachers, Baxsen observed, to retreat behind a professional mask, which “flattens the meaning of the moment, invokes an exaggerated teacherly behavior because it is so intimate,” Baxsen said.

Despite the repetition of information, the patience with which teachers addressed difficult words and deconstructed them so the students might understand, the discussion was stilted.

“To what extent can we make teachers aware of behavior which precludes their message?” Baxsen asked.

Although classroom dynamics are a major impediment to sex education in her homeland, here in the United States external factors can have a significant impact.

Dianne Kerr, program coordinator of Health Education and Promotion, supervises doctoral graduate assistant Kathy Ott in researching how college freshmen perceive abstinence and virginity. Ott collected two years of data from incoming Kent State freshmen.

“We’re finding some shocking things,” Kerr said.

Some of the students surveyed considered themselves abstinent even when they had penile-vaginal intercourse.

“One of the biggest issues several researchers have found is that many people don’t know the operational definition of abstinence or virginity,” Kerr said.

Several federal and state health education programs require that abstinent behaviors be taught, but don’t encourage discussion of other sexual behaviors, Kerr said.

“A lot of the decisions being made at the federal level are based on ideology, rather than science,” Kerr said.

In Ohio, House Bill 189 mandates that health education programs receiving state funding emphasize abstinence until marriage. Potential physical, psychological, emotional and social side effects of participating in sexual activity outside of marriage are also to be taught, Kerr said.

“From a research point of view, there are no studies which show that abstinence-only education is effective,” Kerr said.

Both Kerr and Baxsen wonder if the answer may lie in the community rather than the classroom.

“I think the venue where we may be able to implement more comprehensive sex education is in the community,” Kerr said.

Baxsen agrees.

“I’m asking if schools are actually the best space,” she said.

Baxsen will be speaking about the challenges in teaching about sexuality and HIV/AIDS from a South African perspective tomorrow at noon in Room 200 of White Hall.

Contact College of Graduate Education, Health and Human Services reporter Theresa Montgomery [email protected].