ROCKLAND, Maine — Margo Arruda, now 17, remembers seventh-grade sex education as being altogether mortifying.
“Oh, my God, it was so awkward,” the Portland teen said this week.
The students learned how to put a condom on a banana. They giggled at the constant joking of classmates. They wanted to flee the room. And Margo came away with one primary lesson learned:
“It was basically, if you have sex, we can’t stop you. But if you do, use a condom,” she said.
New, nonbinding standards released in early January by a national coalition of health and education groups are aimed at minimizing out-of-context sexual education experiences like Margo’s. Among other recommendations, schools are urged to encourage age-appropriate discussions about sticky topics such as sex, bullying and healthy relationships early, building a foundation for those conversations before second grade.
Some Maine educators say that low teen pregnancy rates here show that the state’s existing sex education programs are working. But others believe that there is room for improvement when it comes to teaching Maine children about sex.
‘A sacred and beautiful thing’
The Rev. Mark Glovin of the First Universalist Church in Rockland described the Our Whole Lives sexuality education program that is offered to people ages 5 through adult as comprehensive and age-appropriate. On Sunday, the church began an eight-week session for children ages 5 to 8.
“It teaches about healthy boundaries and good decision-making,” Glovin said of the program. “It’s about individual integrity within relationships, and recognizes that human sexuality is a sacred and beautiful thing.”
Margo, who participated in Our Whole Lives at the church shortly after the school sex ed unit ended, loved the program.
“It was amazing,” she said. “It was an opportunity for people my age to sit down and really talk about the things we’re all expected to know. We spent just as much time, if not more time, trying to decide how to take steps in your relationship. How to have a healthy, functioning relationship. How to manage everyday relationships with people. It was so useful.”
According to Glovin and Carney Doucette, director of religious explorations at the church, the curriculum for the youngest participants is aimed at helping them learn about different types of families. They also will learn accurate names for their body parts and that their bodies are “sacred and private,” Doucette said.
Though what gets learned by students changes through the different programs, the philosophy remains the same.
“This gives real-world, real-life instruction on how to have a healthy relationship with your sexuality,” Glovin said.
He said that he was shocked to learn how sex education is taught in public schools. There, kids learn more about how to prevent pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, he said. In the church-offered program, they also learn about emotions, communication and diversity.
“It was just a world of difference,” Glovin said.
In Maine, a state law passed in 2002 addressed the issue of “family life education,” according to David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. Local school districts are expected to use a comprehensive approach to sex education, which means that students from kindergarten through 12th grade will learn about human development and sexuality. The law states that students will be educated about contraception and diseases in a medically accurate and age-appropriate way.
Reacting to the new sex education recommendations released by the national coalition in January, Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Education Abstinence Association, said abstinence should be the focus of any such programs.
Although the Maine family life education law emphasizes abstinence, it also stresses teaching students about individual responsibility regarding sexuality, healthy relationships and communications skills.
While the standards are set by the state, the curriculum is designed and implemented by local school districts, Connerty-Marin said.
The data show that the comprehensive approach is a good one, according to the education spokesman and Lynette Johnson, director of prevention programs at the Family Planning Association of Maine.
The most recent teen pregnancy numbers in Maine show 24.4 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19. Nationally, the rate is 39.1 per thousand, according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Maine once had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates,” Connerty-Marin said. “We now have the fifth lowest.”
Also, Maine teens have increased their abstinence rate by 6 percent in the last decade, from 48 percent of teens self-reporting abstinence in 1999 to 54 percent in 2009.
“Even with the comprehensive approach [to sex ed], we’re seeing that half of our teens are choosing to be abstinent,” Johnson said. “When they do have sex, our teens have one of the highest rates of contraceptive use … We’ve done a good job.”
That’s despite funding cuts to her program that have meant Family Planning Association educators, who go to high schools and middle schools when invited by teachers, had to curtail most of this kind of outreach.
“Our goal is to help schools implement comprehensive, or evidence-based programs,” she said. “It’s more sustainable.”