Tap here to turn on desktop notifications to get the news sent straight to you. When you love talking sex and identity, like Emily and Melanie do, obstacles fall to the wayside. 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. 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. Mississippi and Massachusetts have some of the highest and lowest teen birth rates in the country, respectively. In , Mississippi tied with Oklahoma for the second-highest teen birth rate in the U.
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? 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. Most of my sex education growing up primarily came from what I learned from my peers. I would say that was my main source. 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 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. How has that impacted you as an adult? There was always a lot of shame around sex and sexuality.
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.
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. And the conversations that I did have with adults were much more focused on relationships and making sure that I was safe.
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. What is your curriculum like? What are the main things you emphasize to students? 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.
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. 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?
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.
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. More needs to be done on both sides: 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.
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? 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. Emily Feher Church and faith are a big part of daily life here in Mississippi, more so than what I experienced in California.
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.
What is your favorite thing about teaching sex ed? My primary passion is just supporting young people and making sure they have supportive adults in their lives. All the work we do is with the best interest of Mississippi teens in mind. I adore my job. 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.