Sexual Health Roundup: Illinois to Improve Sex Ed, Changing HPV Messages, and West Virginia Bans Teen Sexting


Sexual Health Roundup is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Illinois Lawmakers Look to Expand Sex Education

The Illinois senate is poised to vote on a bill that would require sexuality education courses to be medically accurate and teach about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). This is a bit of switch for the state, which has allowed abstinence-only education for over a decade.

In fact, the state’s current law says that schools must “emphasize abstinence as the expected norm” and that any course that teaches about sex must teach “the hazards of sexual intercourse.” Schools in Illinois, however, do have some choice in how they teach sexuality education. They can provide an abstinence-only course, a comprehensive course, or choose not to have sex education at all. All courses must emphasize abstinence.

If the bill passes, this would change. Schools would still have the option of not providing any sexuality education at all, but if they choose to do so the education must be medically accurate and cover both birth control and STD-prevention. The law includes an opt-out policy that allows parents who object to the content to take their children out of the class without penalty.

The bill passed the state house last month by a vote of 66-52. It now moves to the senate, where it is being sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago). Steans explained to the Chicago Tribune, “Kids are doing this. We need to give them proper and better tools to inform them. Our goal is we need to limit teenage pregnancy.”

According to the Tribune, a number of Steans’ senate colleagues agree, and feel that simply telling teens to wait for the right person is not enough. During committee hearings on the bill, Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), for example, compared the proposal to school-based drug awareness programs.

Cancer Messages Don’t Motivate Young Women to Get the HPV Vaccine

As we know from past reports, there are now two vaccines that can prevent the strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that are most likely to cause cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine has been a hard sell in this country, as parents seem reluctant to follow the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and vaccinate their sons and daughters early. Like many of my public health colleagues, I’ve long believed that the best messages—especially for parents—are ones that look past the sexual nature of HPV transmission and focus on the ultimate goal of preventing cancer. However, a new study suggests that college-age women are more motivated by preventing STDs, while their mothers are neutral.

Researchers enrolled college-aged women who had not yet had the vaccine as well as their mothers in a study designed to see which messages motivated them the most. Half of the students and half of the mothers got a packet of information called “Prevent Cervical Cancer,” while the other half got a packet called “Prevent Genital Warts.” The groups were given the same amount of time to read their packets and then answered a questionnaire that asked how they felt about HPV and the vaccine and how interested they were in seeing a doctor about this issue.

The genital warts message clearly resonated more with the college-age women, as this group was not only more likely to say they were interested in seeing a doctor, but were also more likely to say they’d be comfortable talking to the doctor about the HPV vaccine. The researchers believe that this comfort is key, and that scare messages are probably not the right tactic to take. The lead author told Medical News Today, “Our results suggest it is more important to get women to feel comfortable talking to their doctor about the vaccine. Fear doesn’t work. They need to feel it is not difficult or embarrassing to discuss the vaccine with their doctor. That’s the best way to encourage them to be vaccinated.”

The concern that STD messages would not resonate with mothers because it would force them to confront the possibility that their daughters are sexually active turned out to be unfounded in this study. The mothers reacted similarly to the two messages, which led the researchers to conclude, “[if] we focus on the prevention of genital warts in our messages to daughters, it may not mean we have lost the mothers.”

I do wonder if the results among the mothers in the study have anything to do with the age of their daughters. It is relatively expected that college-age women are sexually active. A repeat of this study with younger girls and their moms would be very interesting, as the vaccine is recommended as part of routine care for 11-year-olds to make sure that they have all three doses before they become sexually active.

West Virginia Bans Sexting Among Teenagers

Teenagers in West Virginia should probably set an alarm on their smart phones for July 12 that tells them, well, to put down their smart phones. That’s the day a new law goes into effect in the state making sexting an act of juvenile delinquency.

Specifically, the law bars juveniles from making, having, or distributing photos, videos, or other media that portray a minor in an inappropriate sexual manner. Minors found with such material would be guilty of juvenile delinquency. The law, however, also directs the state supreme court to develop an education program that would show offenders the consequences of sexting, including the long-term harm it can do to relationships, school success, and future job opportunities. Minors who are caught sexting can choose this course as an alternative to juvenile charges.

While I agree that sexting, especially when it involves naked or otherwise sexual pictures, can have long-term consequences, I wish states would not rush to punish young people for their sexual behavior. Here’s a radical idea for West Virginia: Put education first. Instead of waiting until you catch kids red-handed to teach them something, develop that course and use it to teach all young people how to think critically before they hit the send button.

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  • John H

    I suggest a change in the last sentence of the HPV section for the sake of accuracy: change “sexually active” to “sexually active with a partner”. Most people are sexually active for their entire lives (including in utero), or until socialization that shames masturbation takes hold, and classifying “sexual activity” as necessarily involving at least one other party serves to marginalize those who are autosexual as well as those who are simply not partnered at the moment by treating their sexualities as somehow inauthentic.

    While I agree that punishing teens for their sexualities is a bad idea, I feel like you may be misrepresenting the law. Presently, in most jurisdictions in the USA, teen ‘sexting’ that involves explicit photos or videos would fall under “child pornography” statutes, which means that only treating it as juvenile delinquency (instead of the years of prison and lifetime of sex-offender registration that await any adult caught with sexually explicit media involving minors) is actually a step away from punishment (or a decrease in the severity of punishment). While I don’t think that furthering laws to punish teen sexuality is a great step to take, this might be the best we can hope for given the cultural anxiety/insanity around teen sexuality.