Home Feature Rise in HIV Rates Not Caused By Bad Sex Ed…We Think

Rise in HIV Rates Not Caused By Bad Sex Ed…We Think


Drawing of the Human Imunodeficiency Virus, or HIV (Image: Wikipedia)
With new HIV infections up dramatically in 2009 among young gay and bi men, it seems logical to direct a lot of the blame at the demise of quality sex education programs in Minnesota schools for producing a generation of students ignorant about the risks of unprotected sex.

Not so fast, say advocates and researchers — while federal policy and education budgets under President George W. Bush focused resources for eight years on sex ed classes teaching only abstinence, Minnesota followed a different track that saved the state’s students from the worst excesses, but failed to address other problems with the way sex ed is taught.

Nationally speaking, Bush’s policies “essentially damaged a generation,” according to Greg Varnum, director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition. “We don’t get a second chance with these folks” to teach them about safe sex practices, he said.

“We know that as many as 80% of the [abstinence-only] programs were proven to teach inaccurate information on safe sex practices and transmission of Sexually Transmitted Infections,” he said in an interview.

Most agree that school settings are the best place to teach sex ed life lessons, and there is a sizable body of statistical evidence that school-based programs increase condom use, reduce the number of sexual partners a person has (reducing the potential spread of an STI), and can delay the onset of sexual activity, according to Amy Brugh, Policy Director at the Minnesota AIDS Project. While it’s not clear that these programs produce the same outcomes for gay and bi men as they do for heterosexual men, advocates are hoping that the proven impact on condom use is common among both groups.

While Minnesota advocates agree that Varnum is right when speaking about the country as a whole, they say his apocalyptic scenario doesn’t quite pan out locally.

“The problem in Minnesota is not so much too much abstinence-only education as it is not enough good sex ed,” said Brugh. Minnesota rejected abstinence-only funds several years ago, she said, and chose not to match federal grant money given to community-based abstinence only programs.

“MDE is not giving technical assistance to school districts to do crazy abstinence-only education,” Brugh said in an interview, referring to the Minnesota Department of Education, the state agency that would typically handle money and set state-wide policy for in-school sex ed classes.

Not even eight years under Governor Tim Pawlenty has had much of an impact, said Lorie Alveshere, Policy Director at the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and Parenting.

“Substantively, nothing has changed during the administration of Governor Pawlenty,” said Alveshere. “The statute has neither been improved or made worse.”

The problem is, Alveshere says her assessment of the situation is something of a guess, based on the general assumption that schools won’t create new programs when they aren’t required to do so or given the funding, in order to save money.

“There’s no resource that’s telling us what districts are teaching,” she said, although she says the legislature has been asked to survey school districts in the past.

Even though the LGBT community cannot look to our favorite whipping boy, Tim Pawlenty, there’s still plenty of room for frustration and advocacy-powering anger. Brugh says that anecdotally, she and other members of the Coalition for Responsible Sex Education hear rumors of some teachers not being properly trained and of some districts not giving teachers proper materials or assistance, but not enough to be able to cite statistics. The coalition is an umbrella group including both MOAPP and MAP whose members lobby for mandatory comprehensive sex ed in Minnesota.

So where to, now?

Advocates both in and out of the legislature keep pushing for a law mandating comprehensive sex ed in Minnesota schools. In the unlikely event that Pawlenty signs the newest bill into law, Dr. Gary Remafedi, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Youth and AIDS Project said teachers need to get explicit about how HIV is transmitted in both heterosexual and homosexual sex, and they need to be properly trained by their school districts so they won’t need to rely on outside specialists to teach the material.

To make sure young gay and bi men could get more relevant, in-depth information that wouldn’t necessarily make it into an all-encompassing sex ed class, Remafedi suggested special elective classes that would address HIV in particular.

For MOAPPP’s Lorie Alveshere, proper HIV prevention needs a culture change that goes beyond a requirement sex ed classes.

“Adults need to educate themselves and be available to young people,” she said. “Adults – not just parents – should care about whether or not this is taught to young people in their communities…Schools want to be doing the right thing but they may not have the resources or perceived support to do this.”


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