Welcome to ”The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American Experience?” It depends where you look.
Nearly half of U.S. teenagers say they’ve had sex. But according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 24 states and the District of Columbia require that public schools teach sex education.
Still fewer states stipulate that if provided, sex education must be factual and medically accurate. A recent report of New York City schools found that even in places where sex education is required, students still might not be receiving the invaluable curriculum.
Emily Feher and Melanie Lucash are sex educators in Mississippi and Massachusetts, respectively. Mississippi requires public school districts to adopt a sex education policy that’s either abstinence-only or “abstinence-plus.” The state is also one of just four in the country where sex education curriculum is taught on an “opt-in” basis, requiring parental consent before a child can receive instruction.
Massachusetts doesn’t mandate whether or not districts teach sex ed. But it does stipulate that where sex education is offered it must be medically accurate and age-appropriate, and, as in most states, parents have the option of opting their children out.
Despite patchy access to medically accurate sex education, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has steadily declined over the years, reaching a record low in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, 229,715 babies were born to women between the ages of 15 to 19 years old ― a drop of 8 percent from 2014.
Mississippi and Massachusetts have some of the highest and lowest teen birth rates in the country, respectively. In 2014, Mississippi tied with Oklahoma for the second-highest teen birth rate in the U.S., at nearly 35 births per 1,000 girls. Massachusetts had the lowest rate, at roughly 9 births per 1,000 teens.
Growing up on opposite ends of the country ― Feher in California and Lucash in New Jersey ― both educators developed a passion for public health and sex literacy. Feher completed undergraduate and graduate degrees in Southern California and spent time living and teaching reproductive health in Cameroon and India. She made her way to Mississippi to begin working at a teen health clinic, always having been curious about life in the South.
Lucash went to college in Georgia then on to graduate school in Indiana, throughout which time she delved deeper into a passion for sexual health advocacy and sexual violence prevention that had developed during high school. Several opportunities at sexual health nonprofits ultimately brought her to Massachusetts.
Feher and Lucash now work in two very different states, but their experiences reveal challenges and rewards that are both unique and shared.
What was your own experience of sex education like when you were growing up?
Emily (Mississippi): I didn’t get a whole lot. I grew up going to public school in Southern California, and we got our standard puberty education in maybe fourth or fifth grade. Something short happened in seventh grade during science class where we learned a little bit about STIs, and there was a very short discussion about condoms. It was pretty superficial. We didn’t go too in-depth about healthy relationships or communication or anything like that. Most of my sex education growing up primarily came from what I learned from my peers. I would say that was my main source.
Melanie (Massachusetts): I had an experience that I’ve found is pretty common, which is that we didn’t talk about sexuality a whole lot with my family. Once I borrowed a friend’s book ― an American Girl book called The Care and Keeping Of You. I had that book when I was probably 12 or 13, and I hid it under my bed. I would read it over and over and over again to learn about the things going on in my own experience, and see whether I was normal. I find that’s a really common experience, people seeking out their own resources, and this hush hush tone of talking about sexuality.
I went to a small, all-girls Catholic high school in New Jersey where sex ed was pretty limited in terms of what kinds of information they could give us. My classmates and I talked a lot about the relationships we were having and milestones we were reaching. When I got to my junior year, a person in the year above me was part of this community education organization called HiTops. When she was about to graduate and spots were opening up she handed me an application and said, ‘I think you’d be really good at this.’ So I became a peer educator through the organization, working in high schools and middle schools talking about sexual health.
What messages did you get from parents/teachers/peers/mentors about sex? How has that impacted you as an adult?
Emily (Mississippi): Growing up in a fairly religious Lutheran family it was just assumed that a person doesn’t have sex until they’re married. I didn’t really think there was an option otherwise. In my younger years I grew up going to Sunday school and Vacation Bible School. There was always a lot of shame around sex and sexuality. Definitely as a female, being modest and protecting one’s sexuality was always kind of the female’s responsibility. That stuck with me for a long time.
I remember the loudest message was the silence I heard around issues of sexuality and relationships. Melanie Lucash
But in general, communication about sex and relationships was pretty minimal in my family. It was mostly through my friends and peers that I might hear some other values. That’s where I learned more of the practical things about sexual health, where services could be accessed, and I think I was very lucky in having some other supportive adults in my life, like my coaches. Part of the reason I got into this work is that I know how important it is for young people to have those supportive adults in their lives, whether it’s coaches, teachers or faith leaders.
Melanie (Massachusetts): I grew up in a very Catholic household, and while there are a lot of associations in Catholicism that are negative around sexuality, my experience was a bit more neutral. I remember the loudest message was the silence I heard around issues of sexuality and relationships. Where my friends and I were all having these interesting, rich conversations about what was going on in our lives, there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation happening with adults in our lives. And the conversations that I did have with adults were much more focused on relationships and making sure that I was safe. It wasn’t as honed in on aspects of sexual identity or things like that. Once I was part of the peer educator program I was the one bringing those things into our family conversations. I was trying to figure out where my boundaries were and what things I believed in that were similar or different from what my parents believed in. I’ve been lucky in that my parents have been really supportive of my career path and my choices.
What is your curriculum like? What are the main things you emphasize to students?
Emily (Mississippi): Our work at Teen Health Mississippi primarily falls into three domains. We do policy and advocacy, working with 10 youth advocates aged 15 to 24, called the Mississippi Youth Council. We help them advocate for better state and local policies, like working on shifting a district to abstinence plus or trying to improve upon an existing law by making it an opt out policy rather than opt in. Simple changes that could expand access to sex education for young people. We support high quality sex education, which for us means research-based, medically accurate, age-appropriate and comprehensive.
We also do training and capacity building for teachers, helping them learn how to respond to challenging questions, create a safe environment. We offer training to parents on how to communicate about sex with their children and training to health care providers to improve the youth friendliness of their services. And we work with schools and other youth-serving organizations to establish referral links connecting them to community-based and youth-friendly organizations.
And last, we’re working on a CDC-funded initiative in the Mississippi Delta called CHART. It’s an initiative that focuses bringing resources and technical assistance to school districts free of charge to implement abstinence-plus sex education.
Melanie (Massachusetts): Right now, since I’ve work been working with a few different nonprofits, I’m lucky to have a really diverse group of folks I work with, all different ages, backgrounds, beliefs and identities. So there isn’t one particular curriculum I use. I have tons of resources, many of which come from the Center for Sex Education in New Jersey. The main things I try to focus on in my education with folks of all ages and backgrounds are empathy and communication in relationships as well as being self reflective about defining your own identity and figuring out what that means to you. I teach respect for other people and for their identities, helping students recognize that other people have different experiences than they might have and be curious and non-judgmental. It looks very different in every group.
I find that different groups are looking for different things ― college students might be looking for a great workshop for learning how to navigate consent and communication. A middle school or high school might be looking for a series of classes on anti-bullying and navigating body image and making decisions and healthy relationships. A lot of it comes back to being empowering for the folks who are moving through the world and making choices and providing non-judgmental and medically accurate and shame-free information for the folks who are looking for it.
What are some of the challenges you face in your work?
Emily (Mississippi): The challenges and roadblocks in this field I think are pretty common across the country. For us in Mississippi maybe something unique to the state or other rural states is that with a lot of the state being in rural areas just being able to access health services is more difficult. It can also be a challenging political environment, but I think that’s common across the country.
It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that contributes to the state’s high teen birth and pregnancy rates. A lot of different factors play into our statistics ― needing more education, better access to services, creating an enabling environment in general to be able to access those services.
For example, when we’re working in the Mississippi Delta, it’s a very rural area. One of the goals of our initiative there is to ensure the full range of contraceptive measures is available at the health centers we’re working with and that providers are trained to be able to provide those methods. It’s a challenge right now not only because a person has to travel potentially to get those services, but they might not be able to get those services that same day. Some of our partnering health centers have some contraceptive methods available ― the depo shot, the patch and the pill. But if someone came and wanted an implant or an IUD the challenge would be whether that method is on the shelf and whether the provider is trained to insert that method. Also there’s a lack of awareness in the community about these methods, and still some misperceptions about the methods. More needs to be done on both sides: increased awareness and increased access.
Melanie (Massachusetts): Some of the challenges and roadblocks I’m facing as an educator are similar to the ones I faced as a young person ― the silence around sex and sexuality, relationships, violence and the fear of bringing these things to the table because they can be messy and complicated. If I’m doing youth education I always encourage young people to talk to their parents and other people at home about what their value systems are. There can be some fear at the end of the parents because something about sexuality can be really personal and really private and there are a lot of feelings around what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate. I always love if I’m able to to chat with the parents of the youth I’m working with before I work with them so they can ask questions and I can provide them with some more resources and some questions to ask their children when they get home later that day. It shouldn’t stop in the classroom.
Sometimes talking with college students or talking with older adults there can be a little bit easier access, but a lot of the time many if not most of those folks are coming in without having had open, honest conversations around sexuality before. That can be a challenge for them, to lean into that discomfort and deal with the messiness.
With parents, usually the challenge is they are concerned about age appropriateness. Many parents want to have conversations about these kinds of topics with their children themselves, and while that can be really wonderful and I highly encourage those conversations to be happening all the time, sometimes parents feel out of their depth. In Massachusetts where the culture up here is very liberal and pretty progressive, the pushback from parents is often that we don’t talk about this enough and that we’re not diving into enough topics. There are certain parents who are concerned about the content of the classes and whether it will be shocking to their children, but everything I keep in my classes is medically accurate, comprehensive and age-appropriate.
Do you think your job would look different if you lived somewhere else?
Emily (Mississippi): Everywhere has its own unique context, but I think there are similar challenges pretty much across the board. In order to expand access to high-quality, comprehensive sex education anywhere you need support from all different types of people. You have to think about how to find what we can agree on and work in a way that makes it relevant for each community. In one community a church might be central and in another some other leader might be the most influential.
For me it’s always about remembering who I’m working for ultimately, and that’s teens. Emily Feher
Church and faith are a big part of daily life here in Mississippi, more so than what I experienced in California. When I first moved to Mississippi, the first question I would get is, ‘Where do you go to church?’ In the South and in Mississippi, it’s just necessary to involve the faith community in our work and to have support from faith leaders in the community in which we’re working because it’s such a central aspect to most people’s lives.
Another thing that’s somewhat unique to this state is that in Mississippi, the law mandates that every public school district needs to adopt a sex ed policy that’s either abstinence only or abstinence plus. Abstinence-plus is the most comprehensive we get in Mississippi. Also the law requires each district to adopt a curriculum approved by the Mississippi Department of Education, and students opt in to the sex ed course. Most states have an opt-out policy. In Mississippi each student needs signed permission to be part of the class. There are no condom demonstrations; the classes are separated by gender, and abortion cannot be discussed.
Melanie (Massachusetts): There are some things that have been really normalized in specific states I’ve taught in. In Indiana and Georgia it’s much more normalized in a high school for there to be a handful of young people who are pregnant or who are teen parents. In Massachusetts and New England it certainly still happens but not as much, and it’s not quite as normalized.
I’ve also found that working in Massachusetts, young people have a pretty high baseline knowledge about what different sexual orientations or identities are and that other people might have different sexual identities than they do. It’s interesting that in many of the communities that I teach in in Massachusetts the young people I work with find that they feel very safe and supported for the most part in exploring their identities. In Indiana and in Georgia it was very clear that, for some of the folks there, coming out was not a safe choice for them in their religious communities or their schools or whatnot, whereas in my teaching in Massachusetts that’s something that seems a little bit more foreign to the young people there.
What is your favorite thing about teaching sex ed?
Emily (Mississippi): My primary passion is just supporting young people and making sure they have supportive adults in their lives. For me it’s always about remembering who I’m working for ultimately, and that’s teens. All the work we do is with the best interest of Mississippi teens in mind. It’s been really exciting to be a part of this organization for a little over two and a half years now and see how much we’ve been able to grow, how many opportunities there are in Mississippi to expand our work and how excited people are in Mississippi to be part of this work.
Melanie (Massachusetts): I adore my job. Honestly, what drives me most in this work is the pure delight on people’s faces, regardless of age, when they realize that this something they actually get to talk about and be honest and frank about. I’ve been in classes of eighth graders and classes of all adults where people are surprised and excited and a little bit nervous about actually saying the words they’re thinking and having real conversations about things that stress them out or that excite them. Being able to help facilitate spaces where students have permission to be vulnerable and to support each other and empower each other about things that are happening right now in their relationships and their own exploration of their identities is such an honor.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.