Why I couldn't have sex with the lights on

Health educator Leticia Jenkins discusses family planning with students at James Monroe High School in Los Angeles, Calif.

by Contessa Gayles | Source

It was pop quiz time in Leticia Jenkins' health class at James Monroe High School in the North Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. The students were huddled in groups, whispering and writing down their answers on personal dry erase boards to questions like, "What do we call the name of the surgical procedure that removes the foreskin of the male penis?" and "What do we call the official name of when a woman receives oral sex?"

On the wall by the entrance of the classroom was a bulletin board covered in colorful construction paper with markered in words like "fallacio," "hymen," and "coitus interruptus."

Jenkins says that having the vocabulary is a crucial part of helping young people feel empowered to talk honestly and openly about a subject she believes is too often considered taboo.

"Let's stop kidding ourselves, this is real. Do we want to learn this or not?," Jenkins said. "I'm not just teaching the act of sex. I'm teaching how to take care of themselves. We're talking intimacy and respect and relationships."

Jenkins has been a health educator in the Los Angeles public school system for 16 years. She says that a new sex ed law, the California Healthy Youth Act, implemented in the state's public schools for the first time in the 2016-2017 school year, has given her legal backing to teach what she believes all health educators in the state should have been doing all along.

That is, providing sex education that is medically accurate and current, unbiased, does not promote religion, and is inclusive of all sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions. Beyond teen pregnancy and STD prevention, the curricula must also include lessons on consent, sexual harassment, relationship abuse, the negative impacts of gender stereotypes, and sex trafficking.

For Jenkins, what she's teaching to her primarily 9th grade students is laying the foundation for navigating decisions about their sex lives not just today, but into adulthood.

"We later see as adults that they could have learned this, but they didn't and then they repeat the same cycle," said Jenkins.

The unintended pregnancy and teen pregnancy rates in the US have declined significantly in recent years and the latter has reached a record low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite this progress, rates in the US are still higher than many other industrialized nations. Teen girls in the US are more than twice as likely to become pregnant than teens in Canada and France, and seven times more likely than their counterparts in Switzerland. And in America significant disparities along racial/ethnic, income and geographical lines persist.

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