For the girls, it was called “Worth the Wait.” Their value was based on their virginity, and giving it up meant not ever getting that value back.
During those two weeks in a Camden high school – those two traumatic weeks for then 15-year-old Camille Richoux, who had just lost her virginity – she felt these Hannah Medical Center volunteers were speaking directly to her. They told her she wasn’t worth anything.
They demonstrated the ineffectiveness of condoms by holding up a hula hoop and telling students that holes in condoms could let through sperm and sexually transmitted diseases without any medically based facts or statistics.
They gave a “hierarchy of gateway interactions.” If you do this, then it will lead to that. Then there will be a point of no return that leads to ruin.
The thing she remembers most, the thing that will stick with her forever, is the red rose at the end of the program.
“They had this really beautiful moment where they compared us to a rose and how beautiful we were,” she said. “Then they tore it apart in front of us. They tore petal by petal off as boys touched us. That was us. They told us that we would be this ruined broken flower that would never be the same, that we would be destroyed.”
Richoux, a community health graduate student at the University of Arkansas, recounted her high school sex education experience. Many who spent their adolescent years in Arkansas have gone through the same sort of program. Richoux said her experience was overwhelmingly negative.
Even as she spoke with passion and assertiveness, Richoux’s angsty 15-year-old self seemed to surface as she recalled the rumors that circulated after she refused to sign an abstinence-until-marriage pledge. She heard words like slut being whispered in the hallways behind her.
“I learned more from the Internet growing up than I ever learned in school,” Richoux said. “That class had so many bad implications of shame, impurity and false information. No sex education would be better than what I had.”
In adolescence, emotions are heightened, and it seems that feelings of shame, insecurity and fear are natural parts of the experience. However, a program meant to educate students should do just that, not use fear tactics to shame them into the right choice, Richoux said.
The program in Camden Richoux attended has not been running for the last two years, but a pregnancy crisis center will bring it back next year, said Jennifer Davis, Hannah Medical Center Executive Director. The program may only run for one or two days, she said, but it will still teach abstinence until marriage and divide boys and girls, Davis said.
“We believe abstinence until marriage is the only way. It is the healthiest lifestyle for teens,” Davis said. “We find dividing them works best. All the students get the same subject matter, but we find they’ll participate more and the parents like it better because it is a sensitive topic.”
Arkansas Compared to the Nation
Nationally, Arkansas ranks fifth in teen pregnancy, first in teen births and is in the top 10 for all major STDs, according to a 2014 Arkansas teen health report by Kristen Jozkowski, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Health Professions at the UofA.
“Other states have created policies and invested funds in evidence-based strategies to lower teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases among teens, while Arkansas lacks efforts to keep teens healthy,” Jozkowski said.
“The research also shows that current laws that stress abstinence only, discuss sex only within the context of marriage and do not include accurate information about condoms and birth control are ineffective at promoting positive health outcomes.”
These days, Richoux devotes her time to health research and speaks to government officials and the public about the need for comprehensive sex education and similar topics. Hoping to promote political change on the state level, she has worked under Jozkowski to expand the limited research into Arkansas’ sex education.
“There’s a real need for it in Arkansas,” Richoux said. “There’s a real need for it not just to exist, because mine existed, but to be consistent and evidence based.”
Nationwide, About 70 percent of high school students who drop out do so because of teen pregnancy, according to the Teen Pregnancy Statistics website. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly 20 million sexually transmitted infections, which cost the health care system almost $16 billion, occur every year in the United States. Half are among young people aged 15–24. These facts make it clear that sex education is not only important, but the system is not working.
As the war on Planned Parenthood rages in Congress, sex education standards still fail to exist on a nationwide basis. Comedians and political commentators have pointed out the intrinsically awkward nature of the subject and the immense inconsistencies of sex education in American schools.
“Teaching sex education in schools is really important for obvious reasons,” said John Oliver, host of the satirical news program Last Week Tonight. “No parent wants to talk to their kids about sex, and no kid wants to talk about sex with their parents. That is why when you’re watching a movie together, and there’s a sex scene, everyone becomes motionless and silently begs for the merciful release of death.”
Twenty-two states mandate that students receive sex education, and 13 states require the information in the course to be medically accurate. Many states, including Arkansas, do not require sex education, but they do require that abstinence be stressed if any sex education course is taught. Some programs are based heavily on religious principles and preach abstinence as the only way. All of this means that few programs in the state are the same, or even similar.
In Arkansas, school boards must decide whether to teach sex education, what subject matter can or cannot be covered and the grade level in which the topics are introduced. Lack of regulations has created a patchwork system in which one student can learn different information and receive a completely different message than a student a few miles away.
“I can’t speak for any other program. I can’t speak about what they are doing wrong, only what we are doing right,” said Beth Bryant, director of Reality Check Inc. based in Rogers. Reality Check is a community-based, nonprofit organization that teaches the skills necessary to guide individuals in making positive life choices, according to its website.
An Abstinence Based Program that Can Work
While many programs – like the abstinence-by-choice program Richoux experienced – are still running in Arkansas, other programs strive to reach a middle ground by stressing abstinence and focusing on medically sound information. The intended message: Know the risks for every option and make an empowered, informed choice that is right for you.
“We are very focused on optimal health and a holistic approach that is medically accurate,” Bryant said. “The basis is that you get to choose, but we want them to choose from a basis of knowledge.”
In fiscal year 2010, Arkansas received $619,862 in federal funds for abstinence-only programs, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
Reality Check – along with two similar programs based out of Stuttgart and Conway – also received some government funding. The program offers fifth- to 12th-grade curriculum approved by the Arkansas Department of Health. Reality Check is one of the largest programs offered in northwest Arkansas, and it has reached almost every school in the area over its 13 years of operation.
Student responses to the program vary, though most are positive based on anonymous, essay-style surveys that Reality Check teachers collect on the last day of each eight-day program.
“We have the students rate the program after we are done,” Bryant said. “Over 93 percent of the students have rated our program an A, which means they were personally impacted and wish everyone could have this program. The kids seem to love it, though there’s always those who don’t get much out of it, or think they don’t.”
Employees keep all the index cards neatly stored by year and school. The handwritten answers range from a few words to tiny font covering both sides. Often, students don’t focus just on sex, but what they learned about forming relationships and thinking about the their future.
“This class has helped me to realize the difference between love and infatuation,” a 10th-grade student from Fayetteville High School wrote.
“I made a choice to live my life the way I want, not the way anyone else wants me to,” wrote another from sixth grade.
“This class has had little impact. I already have the responsibility of practicing with someone, which is crucial for the safe practice of sex,” wrote a 12th-grade student who gave the class a C rating.
Reality Check programs do not divide up boys and girls and keeps the pronouns neutral, Bryant said.
She said she believes the information needed to make the best personal life choices is the same whether the adolescent is male or female, gay or straight.
While the organization has core programs starting in fifth grade, many schools choose not have the programs every year. The lack of consistent education is another reason programs can lack long-term effectiveness, Bryant said.
Green Forest is the type of rural town most out-of-towners might picture when they think of Arkansas. Just outside of Harrison, Green Forest is down the winding road of AR-103, where there is a high probability of being stuck behind a slow-moving chicken truck across the miles of farmland. Its school is one of the most progressive in Arkansas, at least when it comes to pushing for comprehensive sex education.
Green Forest has kept the Reality Check program running since 2008. This has much to do with nurse Lana Boggs, who pushed for a long-term program after seeing first hand the large number of teen pregnancies in a population of fewer than 3,000 people.
“I came in, and there were over 20 girls pregnant or already parenting. There was no set program,” Boggs said. “Since we initiated the program, we have seen our numbers drop tremendously because we tell the kids the truth and try not to guilt them into anything.”
Teens have gone in droves to get tested and get contraception and information, but Boggs said it has also helped in other ways.
“It has saved lives,” Boggs said. “We had a young lady who was married with a 2-year-old at 16. She was in the program, and the instructor brought her down to me because it was uncovered that she wasn’t in a safe relationship. Her family had forced her to marry him, and he raped her and beat her every day. She didn’t know that wasn’t a safe relationship. She didn’t know that wasn’t how it was supposed to be. She opened up and felt safe talking about it, and we were able to help her get out of that. It was the simple knowledge that you are allowed to say no. Before the program, she had never been told that.”
Parental involvement is also stressed during the program, and the instructors send home questions for students to ask their parents. Parent reactions have been overwhelming positive, Boggs said.
“Last year, I remember the questions my daughter brought home were more in depth about diseases and when was the right time to have sex,” said Katherine Smith, who has a son at Green Forest High School and a daughter in middle school. “I answered all of them, and it was a great sounding board for me as a parent to know if they actually understood it all. We had to talk about it, so it was the perfect opportunity to talk.”
Smith’s family moved to Green Forest from Oregon when her son, Braden Smith, was in seventh grade. While Braden – like most 10th-grade boys – still felt a bit uncomfortable talking about sex, said he is grateful for a program that answered his questions.
“It was different. Where I was from, we didn’t do anything like this,” he said. “I didn’t know there were so many things that could happen from sex. The questions they gave us helped me learn more about it than if teachers just talked at us about it.”
Several students said they were terrified at the beginning. It’s not an easy topic for parents or children to discuss, but having a program that delves deeper each year allows students to grow more comfortable with the subject and how it relates to their lives as their knowledge grows.
“Everyone was scared because they didn’t know what it was going to be like, but they started out just teaching us how to stay away from bad situations,” junior Slone Coffey said.
“Every year it just got more in depth about the facts of the reproductive system, birth control and safe sex. I think it helped me and a lot of other kids because they don’t teach that in other classes.”
Why there is No State Mandated Sex Education
On the national level, research has shown that states with comprehensive sex education programs have lower teen birth rates and STDs over the past decade.
“The abstinence-only approach to sex education is not supported by the extensive body of scientific research on what works to protect young people from HIV and AIDS, sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy,” said researchers from the University of California in San Francisco in the “Abstinence Only vs. Comprehensive Sex Education” report that was released in March 2002.
Today’s reports overwhelming come to the same conclusion. However, in Arkansas, there is no such data from counties that can track correlations. Christina Mullinax, the regional organizer for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, believes that the inconsistency of sex education in Arkansas is a critical problem for the state, and has spent years trying to collect her own data.
“The problem is that information is not out there,” Mullinax said.
This lack of information makes it difficult to come to any conclusions on what programs are working. Mullinax has taken it upon herself to get answers, but she said she has received pushback from the health department and smaller counties.
“I’ve tried to combine in a spreadsheet the teen birth rates by county, along with what I could find out about the sex education that is being taught there, to try to draw some conclusions,” she said. “They don’t publicly publish the teen birth rates by county because of privacy reasons. Some are so tiny you could identify who the people are. That’s what I’ve been told.”
Her incomplete findings reveal that counties with strict abstinence-only education have a 20 percent higher teen birth rate. A majority of parents said they are in favor of comprehensive sex education, but they fear what is holding the state back at a governmental level, Mullinax said.
“It’s fear from parents and educators, especially administrators,” she said. “There’s a majority of parents that state they are in favor of comprehensive sex education, but the parents who are not in favor are more vocal. Because of that, administrators think that if they initiate comprehensive sex education, there is going to be a lot of pushback.”
Those who run abstinence only programs believe teaching anything else would encourage teens to engage in sex.
“There’s no such thing as safe sex outside of marriage,” said Davis, who helped set up the abstinence curriculum at Hannah Medical Center in Camden. “We strictly go in and tell the truth. Some people just want to hand out condoms and slap a bandage on the problem. That leads to teens having sex.”
Mullinax is aware of that some people think that is what comprehensive sex education is.
“There is a widespread misconception that we are going to go into schools and hand out condoms,” Mullinax said. “There’s also the misperception that if you talk to kids about sex, about their bodies and their sexuality, they are going to have more sex. Research shows just the opposite to be true.”
“There’s a law on the books that says you have to stress abstinence,” Mullinax said. “That’s not a problem. Any sex education that is out there is going to stress abstinence as the best way to prevent unintended pregnancies and STIs, but a lot of the school districts push the abstinence-only stuff.”
Funding for Planned Parenthood in Arkansas continues to decrease, making it difficult for Mullinax to continue her research and local programs, she said.
“My plans have been put on hold because our funding has continued to be cut. It’s so difficult. By all accounts, it could be a decade or more before the political climate changes here,” she said.
“With the conservatives completely taking over, there is extremely little chance of good information being spread and pushed through the halls of the capitol. We are here for the long term. Planned Parenthood had been here for 100 years, and we are not fazed.”
For now, it is better to focus efforts on working with parents and educators, she said.
“They have incorporated sex education into after-school curriculums for students and parents that focus on life skills, finances and how to build healthy relationships,” she said.
“We recognize that you can’t call it sex education because people get their backs up, but kids need information about their bodies. To prevent child sexual abuse, they need to know what is an appropriate touch and what is not. They are hoping parents will warm up to the idea, and they will be much more likely to want their kids to get the same information in school.”
It’s a slow process in a state that has the highest rate of teen births in the country.
“I think we really all have the same goals,” Richoux said. “We just have a different idea of how to reach those goals. I think that a framework of health access and education have been shown to be much more effective than the current standard in Arkansas, which is ‘Don’t talk about sex.’”