Crossposted at Amplify
Oregon usually does well when it comes to sex ed: Advocates for Youth gives us a B+, which is pretty good considering our weird political makeup. Oregon boasts a few hubs filled with liberal hippies and Obama-lovers,surrounded by small towns, some of which stay in line politically with the big cities, and others in which confederate flags, run down RVs, and ammo-filled gas stations are par for the course.
So, when I arrived at the Adolescent Sexuality Conference this week in Seaside, OR, I didn’t know what to expect. The last time I visited the Oregon coast, a billboard next to a porn store greeted passersby with a message equivocating porn and sin and a few proverbs about turning your back on God,etc, etc. Then again, my county hosts the annual Oregon Country Fair, a veritable extravaganza of drugs, hemp,and bare, painted chests (of men and women alike). Like I said, you never know what’s coming your way.
After checking in, gathering somefreebies (I got a Frisbee that reads: STIs! Anyone can catch one), and digesting the standard continental breakfast, I attended some great sessions which will, I’m sure, provide fodder for future blogs. When the last session of the day arrived, I chose the one about youth leadership. Seems fitting, right? Wrong. This particular workshop centered on the youth leadership in the STARS Foundation. STARS, a peer-led abstinence curriculum, serves 65% of middle school students statewide, teaching them that Students Today Aren’t Ready for Sex. Though I would agree that sixth graders aren’t ready for sex, I am skeptical about the scope of the program. First of all, I don’t think most sixth graders need to be told not to have sex: they already know it. But wouldn’t it be prudent, even wise, to teach them about birth control, STIs, and condom use just in case they decide that they are,in fact, ready for sex? In the event that they do decide to have sex, they shouldn’t be punished by pregnancy or infections.
Second, a hefty chunk of federal funding is always bound for abstinence education programs, whether they’re abstinence clowns or fear-mongering middle school sessions. That’s why I was so surprised by the STARS workshop’s posturing when it came to their “funding struggles.” As soon as they started empathizing with innocent attendees’ funding plights, my supervisor immediately rolled her eyes. “That’s a lie!” she whispered fiercely. Sure enough,the STARS adult leader then outlined what the curriculum could and could not address according to its parameters. Hmmm, parameters? “Who dictates these parameters?” I asked. “A board of directors? Grants? Could it be…(insert threatening music here)…ABSTINENCE ONLY FEDERAL FUNDING??” Plot foiled! The leader admitted to the federal grants they receive, and alluded to the subtle religious influence of the STARS program, as not-so-subtly evidenced by the biblical quote on the back of a STARS-commissioned comic book. Dishonesty is never the way to go, and in this case, it just made me want to scream.
Interestingly, I actually liked the youth leaders who presented the material. Although I disagree with what they attested to be their “strong beliefs”(one wore a silver abstinence ring), they seemed like nice, fun, and pretty smart kids. I had a hard time deciphering whether or not they actually, passionately, believe in unequivocal abstinence. Was it a way to engage in whatever conversations about sex and sexuality they could for lack of a better alternative, or did it stem from true conviction? I’ll probably never know.
Last but not least, a teenage leader spoke about her project as a member of the STARS Teen Advisory Board. As a required component of Board membership, youth do anything from making abstinence-encouraging movies (the one we watched bordered on propaganda), create comic books (amazingly designed but a little too God-infused for school, in my opinion), and, in the case of the leader at the conference, implement new policies through the School Board. The leader spoke of the School Board negotiating process as if were easy as pie—no big deal. I could barely contain myself: after weeks of emails back and forth with a supposedly supportive School Board member and seemingly endless contemplation and discussion, my quest to achieve condom access in schools in my district has essentially remained stagnant. And this girl can just strut right in and secure abstinence only STARS education in two more middle schools?
In a mire of contradictions,dishonesties, and propaganda, at least one thing is clear. For now, in Oregon (at the least where funding is concerned), this is as simple as it gets.