How do I open up the sex ed conversation and help fix state sex ed laws?
Jaclyn Friedman replies:I'm a 15 year old girl living in a very conservative area where the vast majority are members of a pretty conservative Christian religion. Combine this with the lack of good sex education taught in schools (that teaches abstinence-only, the state prohibits encouragement of contraceptives, and a whole bunch of other problematic stuff), most kids here, including my friends, don't know that much about sex and/or are uncomfortable talking about it. Even though I'm a member of their religion, I have lived in lots of other places so I guess I've been out of the "bubble." I have educated myself on sex and other topics related to it, and I've made sure to use medically accurate sources. I've also experimented with masturbation, which in our religion, is supposed to be off-limits, but I definitely think there's nothing wrong with it and it can be super beneficial. It has been super interesting learning about the cultural, political, scientific, etc. aspects of sexuality, abortion, "virginity", HIV/AIDS etc. However, whenever I try to talk about it with my friends here, they make comments on how disgusting it is. Whenever I try to share my thoughts on sex and the need for better sex education in schools, they look at me like I'm crazy, just because my thoughts contradict our religion's conservative values. I don't think we shouldn't be able to handle these talks, because we're all 15/16 yrs old. I respect their choices to choose abstinence, but I think it becomes a little problematic when a 16 yr old doesn't know what oral or anal sex is, and thinks that sex should only be between a married man and a woman, and that it can't be for pleasure. How do I open up the conversation? Or should I stay quiet? They already think I'm crazy because I'm pretty outspoken and I will outwardly contradict their conservative political views (it's tiring). Also, is there anything a teenager can do to try to change state laws on sex education in schools? I think that teenagers deserve to learn more about sex, and I read our state's laws and they're really worrisome. I think that lack of proper sex education will lead to more unwanted teen pregnancies, people turning to non-reliable sources such as porn for their sex education, and generally just perpetuate the culture of slut-shaming that we have. Can I contact a member of the legislature?
First, let me say how awesome it is to get your letter. I recently started a whole new organization -- called EducateUS -- to convince more people to want to take action for sex education the way you already do, and to help people like you who are already motivated and looking for ways to get active.
Let me start with the simpler part of your question first: you can absolutely contact any member of the United States legislature you like, but you'll probably have the best luck getting attention from the ones that represent your district and/or state. You can find that info here, along with contact information.
However, before you start emailing or dialing, it's a good idea to find out who decides what kind of sex ed is taught in your school district. I know you've already looked up your state-level laws, but there may be a lot that's still left to the school district to decide, in which case you may want to reach out to your local school board members as well. You can find out more about what's up for your state using the SIECUS State Profiles tool.
It's very likely that -- no matter how conservative your state -- there are already people who are working to improve sex education in your community. If that's the case, the best thing to do is reach out to them and ask them to tell you which elected officials you can contact to make the biggest impact. They may also have other ways to get involved, and may connect you with the support and community of like-minded people. Use our connector tool to see if we know anyone who's doing this work near you. If there's no one close enough, you might also check your local Planned Parenthood affiliate, see if there's a chapter of URGE near you, or even ask for help finding local connections in one of the direct services here at Scarletreen. No matter where you live, you can also take our Sex Ed Voter Pledge and we'll keep you up to date when sex ed is on the ballot for you.
The other part of your question is trickier. I can't tell you whether or not you should stop trying to convince your friends about sex education, but it does sound like the approach you're taking isn't working right now.
One new approach to persuasion that's really promising is called Deep Canvassing. It's designed for political campaigns -- "canvassing" is another way of saying "door knocking" or "phonebanking" -- but it can be really helpful one on one with people in your life, too.
The basic idea is to do a lot more listening than most of us naturally do when we're trying to change someone's mind. You want to ask questions based on curiosity, and really draw out someone's story about why they feel the way they do. Then you find a value in their story that you can relate to -- maybe they really want to make sure they're respected for more than what they can do for someone else sexually, and you feel the same way. You reflect that back to them, and then share a story that also relates to that value that illustrates why you believe sex education is so essential.
That's kind of the very short version, but if you wanted to learn more about it/get some practice I highly recommend the free trainings People's Action does every month -- you'll learn the technique and then practice it with real people. Once you learn how to do it, you can try it out on the people you care about who you really want to reach.
It's also okay to stop trying. Not everyone is going to be ready or willing to hear what you have to say. It's possible your energy will be better spent convincing school board members or state legislators, and letting it drop with your friends for now, or period. There is literally nothing wrong with that. It's totally your call.
I'll end on a high note: sex education is incredibly popular, all around the country -- even in conservative states. When you feel like you're all alone in your bubble, you're not. So, so many of us are with you. If we all take the kinds of steps you're taking, we really can transform U.S. public school sex education for good.