My Sex Education

Cornell student Hadiyah Chowdhury, who has been working with the ACT COE this summer, has a particular interest in how students from different cultures do or do not benefit from the sex education they receive in schools. Although her own high school sex ed was not evidence-based, we asked her to share her experiences of sexual health education in a small upstate city.

I was born and brought up in Corning NY, a town of approximately 40,000 people, 92% of whom are white. My parents immigrated to the United States as graduate students from Bangladesh in 1987. I grew up speaking fluent Bengali until the time came for me to go to school and I forgot all my Bengali. The specifics of my upbringing may not resonate with too many people, but I have a feeling that many people reading might be feeling a sense of familiarity. When I was 11 my family and I moved to Paris where we lived for three years before moving back to Corning. The culture shock I experienced when I moved back to the States at age 14 was confusing to say the least.

In order to get a sense of what I was feeling, it becomes necessary to understand Corning as a town. Corning is a company town, meaning that your parents either work for Corning Incorporated (a company that produces glass) or they do not. The rich and poor of Corning, New York can be described as simply as that. This very visible and obvious distinction led to an extremely stratified high school experience: you had the honor’s kids on one hand, who only took AP classes and whose parents exclusively worked for Corning, and the regents kids (or “dirts” as they were called by some) whose parents did not. Because of this distinction, I pretty much cycled through the same group of 15-20 kids in all of my classes in high school. The only exceptions to this rule were PE and health class.

My health class had a total of seven students, only three of which I had interacted with before. As was the case in most of my other classes, I was not only the only South Asian person in the class, but also the only person of color. I remember being apprehensive of the class (as many teenagers are) not only because I thought some of the discussions in the class would be uncomfortable, but also because I didn’t know how my thoughts and ideas would be perceived by others based on the color of my skin. See, the problem was not that my parents were conservative when it came to sex, the problem was that I was not. Despite my apprehension, I found health class to be a place where I could express my thoughts about relationships, sex, and health more generally in a fairly intimate way. I remember my teacher had us sit on the floor in a circle and led us into rather unstructured, facilitated discussions. This method worked well because of the small class size and the way the instructor facilitated conversation between us, even though we definitely disagreed about many of the topics she had us discuss. I never felt attacked because of my skin color or my more liberal opinions about relationships and sex. This was pleasantly surprising to me since I was uncomfortably aware that I was perceived as different by most people at school. Not a day went by that someone wouldn’t make some comment about how my liberal opinion on some topic was no doubt due to the “chocolate” color of my skin. Health class was something of a refuge from these kinds of comments.

I must give credit to the instructor: she worked at a rape crisis center and a rehabilitation center for individuals addicted to meth and cocaine before coming to my high school. She obviously had to be able to manage rooms full of people from different backgrounds. She was easily able to contact Planned Parenthood to come and do two workshops for us, one on different forms of contraception and another on abusive relationships.

I looked forward to health class every day because I knew the instructor would handle disagreement well while also allowing us to be honest about our opinions. It was only when I came to college that I realized that this was not everyone else’s sex ed experience. Many people had to deal with instructors who would slut-shame, or preach abstinence only to classrooms. Some people told me that they were terrified of engaging in sex for fear of becoming pregnant or getting an STI after going through sex ed in high school. Others told me they had no kind of sex ed at all in school. While sex ed wasn’t perfect in Corning, I at least felt that I had access to useful resources. My health class focused on the mechanics of heterosexual, penetrative sex and tended to ignore topics around gender (specifically gender-non-conforming people) and attraction. However, since I felt that I knew where to go if I had questions, I think my sex ed ended up being quite comprehensive. In addition, my instructor made it clear that sex can be really emotionally or physically painful for some people, forcing me to conceptualize my ideas about sex in a different way. This class also became the beginnings of my interest in feminism and gender theory more broadly.

So in general, I am very grateful for the way health class was conducted in my rural, upstate high school and I recognize I was very lucky to have such a good instructor. The way she handled cultural differences in the classroom was respectful and allowed me to feel very comfortable while discussing topics that weren’t necessarily very easy to talk about.

 

– Hadiyah Chowdhury

Hadiyah Chowdhury is studying Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies as well as Anthropology at Cornell University.

What Do Youth Think about Birth Control Methods?

A few years back, the Department of Health asked the ACT COE to gather young people’s perspectives on family planning services. With the help of CAPP and PREP providers, we were able to speak with 336 youth in 36 focus groups all over New York State. What we found was, for the most part, not surprising: Many had confidentiality concerns centered around the fear that parents would find out or people would know their business. Youth were afraid of being judged by clinicians and other staff; talking about sex and contraception felt awkward; and clinics did not always seem friendly to youth. There were also fears about getting bad news at a clinic visit.

No surprises there. But to me, one finding did stand out: the overwhelming negative beliefs and attitudes that youth expressed about birth control methods.

Participants were asked to name contraceptive methods that they were aware of and briefly discuss each method. Our researchers counted the number of negative vs. positive remarks made about each contraceptive method – and in nearly every case, the negative comments far outweighed the positive comments.

Negative comments most often referred to side effects they had heard about, as well as perceived lack of reliability. Emergency contraception in particular was considered dangerous – and had five times as many negative comments as positive. The only method where the good edged out the bad? Abstinence. Abstinence was not mentioned as frequently as other methods, but youth clearly understood that it is the most effective way to prevent pregnancy. (It was also largely seen as unrealistic.)

This study is several years old. More recently, researchers in South Carolina* conducted a small focus group study with black and Latina/o youth in two counties. They found many of the same themes: young people expressed the need for private, confidential services in an environment that is friendly to teens. And again, negative feelings about birth control surfaced – especially with respect to side effects. As one teen put it when talking of contraception commercials, “I hate it when they say side effects may include dizziness, drowsiness, heart disease…I say no thank you.”

We know we need to work on the perception and reality of confidential services for youth. At the same time, let’s make sure youth are getting positive messages about birth control. The good news is, they’ve received positive messages about abstinence, and these messages appear to be getting through. How can we present other methods in a positive light as well? Teens who are now or will soon be sexually active do need to know the side effects of any method they are considering, but are they also hearing about convenience, effectiveness, ease of use, and accessibility?

What are your thoughts? Do you have strategies to share? Let us know in the comments.

Karen Schantz– Karen

*Galloway, C. T., Duffy, J. L., Dixon, R. P., & Fuller, T. R. (2017). Exploring African-American and Latino Teens’ Perceptions of Contraception and Access to Reproductive Health Care Services. Journal of Adolescent Health, 60(3, Supplement), S57–S62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2016.12.006

You can find more on the ACT for Youth study here: Youth and Family Planning: Findings from a Focus Group Study (PDF)