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     During my freshman year, the six learning objectives of Family Life Education (FLE) were relegated to a one sentence message broadcasted across a gymnasium: “Abstinence 100.”  Of course, the goal of any sexual education curriculum should be to minimize risky behaviors: we all want teenagers to successfully transition into the workforce or higher education without the health, economic, and social harm that can come from an sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or an unplanned teenage pregnancy. Nonetheless, FCPS’ current curricula is blind to an undeniable reality: teenagers have sex.

    According to the Centers of Disease Control (CDC, the teen birthrate is substantially higher in the United States compared to any other Western industrialized nation. Moreover, vast swatches of US teens engage in exceptionally risky sexual behaviors. In 2019, CDC surveys indicated that 46 percent of US teenagers who  engaged in sexual intercourse did not use a condom the last time they had sex, a behavior that increases teenage pregnancy rates and the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

    FCPS isn’t immune to these trends. Upwards of 17 percent of FCPS students reported having had sexual intercourse in their lifetime, including a third of seniors, according to FCPS’ own youth survey. Those rates are even higher among marginalized student populations, like the LGBTQIA+ population.

     Thankfully, a number of evidence based practices can minimize risky sexual behaviors. For example, condom usage is a potent tool to significantly reduce the risks of sexual intercourse. According to the CDC, the use of condoms can lower the risks of STI transmission. In particular, countless studies have suggested that condoms can provide an important protection against the spread of HIV, an incurable virus that can lead to AIDs, a disease that significantly lowers a person’s life expectancy. The NIH, for example, notes that the use of male latex condoms decreases the risk of HIV transmission by close to 85 percent. Similarly, an abundance of evidence indicates that condoms can reduce the rate of unplanned pregnancies, with one study even suggesting that the perfect use of condoms can reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy to just two percent.

     Unfortunately, FCPS’ curricula dances around condom usage. While abstinence is mentioned in half the FLE standards in freshman year, contraceptives are mentioned in just one standard. This emphasis on abstinence promotes outdated standards that neither delay sexual initiation or reduce sexual risk behaviors, while neglecting in-depth discussions on contraceptive usage that correct wide-spread errors in condom usage.

     None of this information is groundbreaking. For decades, scientists and public health practitioners have promoted the inclusion of in-depth discussions of contraceptives and STIs into FLE curricula. In 1992, for example, the Republican-appointed Surgeon General of the United States, Antonia C. Novello, released an address that acknowledged that children “must have scientific, dependable information about HIV and AIDS,” including access to a “comprehensive health curriculum.” Dr. Novello went on state that while abstinence remained a safe way to prevent HIV transmission, condoms were still “highly effective” at lowering the risk of HIV and AIDs.

     Nonetheless, FCPS has consistently maintained its outdated standards. It’s not because there’s evidence to suggest that discussing contraceptives increases the risk of teenage sexual intercourse. In fact, national surveys have even suggested that including content about condoms can translate to a decrease in the likelihood of teenagers engaging in sex before the age of 15. Rather, FCPS’ conservative FLE curriculum is an attempt to sanitize uncomfortable conversations to appease political groups. As public health experts studied evidence-based solutions to drive down STI transmission rates, interest groups have politicized sexual education research to score electoral victories.  In the same address where Dr. Novello, a Republican appointee, discussed the benefits of contraceptive usage, for example, they acknowledged fierce conservative opposition.

     Similarly, in Fairfax County, political groups have used attempts to reform FLE to reflect medical consensus as an attack line against reform-minded school board candidates. The result is an FLE curricula that is driven by politics, not medicine. The consequences of political interference in our FLE curricula extends beyond STI transmissions and contraceptive usage. Instruction around the basic tenants of affirmative consent are relegated to bare-bones discussion, while support on gender identity and sexual orientation are mere after-thoughts in FLE. Students questioning their gender and sexual identity in tenth grade, for example, are not referred to a myriad of Queer-affirming resources, such as the Trevor Project, GLSEN, and local health clinics, but instead, told to speak to their “clergy.”

     There is no denying that discussions around FLE will be uncomfortable. Nevertheless, FCPS cannot continue to allow politics dictate a curricula that is essential to our public health. It’s time that we embrace the consensus of public health practices and create a FLE curriculum that emphasizes evidence-based health practices.