The Tough Task of Teaching Sex Ed

A new study finds 19 million reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S., half of them among people between the ages of 15 and 24. Susan Milstein, a professor who specializes in sexual health education, knows how difficult it is to persuade young people to change their behavior.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Once upon a time, teaching kids about sex ed was a fairly simple affair as this video from 1957 points out.

(Soundbite of video, "As Boys Grow")

Mr. JOE MIKSAK (Actor): (As Coach Douglas) Growing up is a time of change. Everything seems to happen at once.

Unidentified Man: (As character) Uh-uh. The coach said it's glands.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Well, you get those from your parents.

Mr. MIKSAK: Hey, what is this? You're all taking the whole afternoon off?

Unidentified Man: (As character) Hey, coach. Didn't you say it was glands that made guys different?

Mr. MIKSAK: Yeah. That's right.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Well, today in biology class, Mr. David said we're all different because of our parents.

Mr. MIKSAK: That's right. I meant the way your body develops to puberty.

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Puberty? What's that?

Mr. MIKSAK: Well, that'll take a little explaining. Maybe later, huh?

STEWART: Well, later isn't a good idea anymore considering some nasty stats from the CDC. The CDC says last year, there were 19 million reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases - STDs. And half of those reported cases happened to folks between the ages of 15 and 24. And for the first time ever, the numbered cases of Chlamydia topped a million, the most ever.

Faced with a tough task of trying to teach sex ed these days is Sarah Milstein. She's a professor at Montgomery College specializing in sexual health education. Hi, Sarah.

Professor SUSAN MILSTEIN (Sexual Health Education, Montgomery College): It's Susan, but good morning.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

Oh, my goodness.

STEWART: Oh, I'm sorry. Susan.

Prof. MILSTEIN: That's okay.

STEWART: Well, Susan, when you first heard about this survey, were you atall surprised?

Prof. MILSTEIN: No.

STEWART: Why not?

Prof. MILSTEIN: Which is scary. I don't - the numbers have been really high for that population for a while. Obviously, the Chlamydia rates getting as high as they are is a little spooky, but this is nothing new. These kids have been having unprotected sex or they're not protecting themselves against STDs, and it's been happening for a while.

STEWART: Why?

Prof. MILSTEIN: If I could answer that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: Yeah.

STEWART: Or anecdotally - from the information you can kind of pull out them in class or you hear in the halls.

Prof. MILSTEIN: I've asked my students what kind of contraception they used the last time they had sex, if they had sex. And 42 percent have either nothing or withdrawal.

STEWART: Wow.

Prof. MILSTEIN: So that can kind of tell you that right there. And the ones who are being careful, they're more worried about pregnancy. So they're using more the hormonal methods which are great for pregnancy but not for STDs.

STEWART: Now, the kids that come into your classroom, how does the amount of information they have about their sexual health compare with their sexual activity?

Prof. MILSTEIN: Oh. Not enough sexual - they have not enough information when they're coming in. They're getting caught, unfortunately, in some really bad education in the schools. And I'm not going to bash the abstinence thing, but they're not being taught what they need, and they're coming in very unprepared.

STEWART: What's the name of the class you teach?

Prof. MILSTEIN: I teach class called Health Issues and Human Sexuality.

STEWART: And I understand you taught a class on STDs yesterday?

Prof. MILSTEIN: Actually, yeah. Perfect timing.

STEWART: How'd it go?

Prof. MILSTEIN: A little shocking for them. I think some of the pictures were quite disturbing. And I'm hoping they left feeling like they could get one of these. But it - that kind of feeling lasts for about 20 minutes.

STEWART: Is that what works…

Prof. MILSTEIN: No.

STEWART: …really disgusting pictures.

Prof. MILSTEIN: It works for a very short period of time. And that's what we know. But at this point, anything to get their attention.

BURBANK: This is something I was wondering: Are you getting to them too late? If they're already in college, I mean, have they formed their sort of ideas about this?

Prof. MILSTEIN: Absolutely. I mean, I just think I have the significant portion of my population who is not sexually active and for them, it's good timing. But I think that college is way too late. They need the information earlier.

STEWART: We are talking to Susan Milstein. She's a professor at Montgomery College, and she specializes in sex health education.

I'm curious - if we can kind of stay out of the political side of this discussion - how did - how does abstinence-only education affect what you do by the time they get to college?

Prof. MILSTEIN: I think if you do abstinence-only education right, I think it's great. If you give them all the information that they need buut tell them this is the best method, that's great. I think the way it translates into everyday schools is abstinence is your only option. And we're not going to give you everything else that you need. If we gave the kids all the information they need and we could promote abstinence but let them get the information, I think it would be better for them in the long run.

STEWART: I'm curious what some of the assumptions are that you have to correct students about STDs and about sexual health.

Prof. MILSTEIN: Well, about STDs, it's never them. It's always going to be somebody else.

STEWART: Right.

Prof. MILSTEIN: But that's true with teenagers all over the country on any topic and then closely tie it to pregnancy. They're still talking about the fact that you can't get pregnant if it's your first time, or if you stand up.

STEWART: Wow.

Prof. MILSTEIN: Yes, which is not true. Let me make sure I say that

BURBANK: Yeah. I have a really good friend who had a kid at 17 and could tell you that that is not true.

Prof. MILSTEIN: Yeah.

BURBANK: That is totally not true.

STEWART: On a very serious tip, STDs are really dangerous and they can really affect your entire life. I mean, I have a friend who, unfortunately, got an STD. It's not me. And she can't have children now because she has scarred fallopian tubes. What are some of the more serious aspects of STDs that you think kids need to know about?

Prof. MILSTEIN: I think you've nailed one of the big ones is that for a lot of the girls specifically, when they're being exposed to Chlamydia and gonorrhea and it's not being treated because, unfortunately, a lot them don't get symptoms, they're winding up with infertility problems later on. And then obviously, with HIV, we're looking at the possibility of death later on when they convert into AIDS. So…

STEWART: That's interesting. We were talking about this in our meeting yesterday that when we were in high school and college, they just scared the bejeezers out of you about HIV and AIDS. And you wouldn't even think about approaching anyone without - for almost being in a body condom it felt like for a while. Has that changed?

Prof. MILSTEIN: Actually, a student asked me yesterday in class if we need to talk about this because there was a cure for HIV, which, again, not true.

BURBANK: That's what I'm wondering about. You know you're happy for Magic Johnson that he's healthy.

Prof. MILSTEIN: Right.

STEWART: Right.

BURBANK: But on the other hand, it's like, you see something like that and people think of it as a kind of a manageable disease now, right?

Prof. MILSTEIN: Right. And if you can catch it and you - they can put you on good drugs - that sounds so bad.

STEWART: We know what you mean though.

Prof. MILSTEIN: If they can put you on a good drug cocktail, you can live a productive life with HIV. It's not the death sentence that it used to be. But they do, they get this message that Magic Johnson is so healthy so it's obviously not a big deal. But it is. Magic Johnson has a lot of money for treatment, which most of these kids don't.

STEWART: Yeah. What are you going to teach today?

Prof. MILSTEIN: Today, I am finishing up actually STIs and HIV.

STEWART: Well, I wish you a lot of luck today.

Prof. MILSTEIN: Thank you.

STEWART: Susan Milstein, professor at Montgomery College, specializing in sexual education. Thanks for joining us.

Prof. MILSTEIN: Thank you.

STEWART: You know what's an interesting point, Luke, I was doing some research for this, they talked about STDs - one of the articles I read - and they were saying once upon a time, penicillin was the cure-all. But there's a lot of these super - the superbug idea translates to STDs.

BURBANK: Oh, right.

STEWART: And some of them - the penicillin - they laughed. They scoffed at the penicillin. So it's important to get the word out.

BURBANK: I love that clip you started to say(ph).

STEWART: (Unintelligible).

BURBANK: I can almost hear the flat top on that teacher.

STEWART: You have to watch it. There were certain parts that were so funny that we couldn't play. I'll forward it you. It's on YouTube anyway, if you want to see the whole thing.

BURBANK: All right. Maybe we can put that on the el blogo.

Coming up, we're going to talk about Arabic. The number of college students studying Arabic has more than doubled in the last four years. We're going ask someone who's studying it. What so cool about that language? Maybe we can learn how to actually ask that in Arabic.

STEWART: That'd be very cool.

Also, the human Iditarod. You heard me, the human Iditarod. We'll talk to one young woman who is going to partake in that race across Alaska.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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