Miss. Sex Ed: Advocacy groups are still pushing for reform

By William Smith

It has been nearly a decade since Mississippi joined most other states by passing legislation that made sex education mandatory in its schools. Since then, the challenging effort to lower Mississippi from the top of the national lists for teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases has created debate around the abstinence approach educators must use.

“Abstinence based programming is good in the sense that it speaks to the young people in the state that choose not to engage in any sexual activity,” Mississippi First, an education and policy organization focusing on education reform, staff member Chris Cox said. “However research shows that teens are engaging in sexual activity. Mississippi actually has a higher percentage than the national average, so we know kids are engaging in sexual activity, and engaging pretty often,” Cox said.

Cox is a healthcare training and engagement coordinator at Mississippi First who believes it is crucial to educate kids on reproductive health practically, and not by assuming kids will remain abstinent.

“The way our sex ed laws are written assumes abstinence education works. But it’s important to ask: is this the best method to make sure we are keeping our young people safe?” Cox said.

Cox said he doesn’t think so.

“We advocate for more of a comprehensive sex ed approach where kids are taught the best method is abstinence, but also how to properly take precautions against STDs and unplanned pregnancy should they choose to engage in intercourse,” Cox said.

Mississippi is among 12 states to have a state education sex policy that teaches on an abstinence only basis. Abstinence-only programs teach that sexual activity outside of marriage will have harmful social, psychological and physical effects. These programs teach that abstinence is the only behavior acceptable before marriage.

Those against the abstinence-only program cite clear evidence that sex education in Mississippi is not doing its job. A 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed 48 percent of Mississippi high school students reported they had sex, and 33.8 percent of Mississippi high school students reported being sexually active at the time of the survey.

“Abstinence only sex ed has been criticized for what it doesn’t teach,” UM junior psychology major Emily Buchanan said. “These programs don’t require teaching things like how to properly use condoms, or how students can find and access healthcare options related to reproductive health,” Buchanan said.

According to a Mississippi Department of Health study, 39 percent of Mississippi high school students surveyed said they did not use a prophylactic the last time they had intercourse. In 2015, Mississippi had the highest rate of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the nation, and half of the cases were among adolescents and young adults between 15 to 24 years old.

But abstinence based education’s negative effects are not limited to individual health problems from unplanned pregnancy or STDs. According to Lisa Jordan, director of communications at the Mississippi Women’s Foundation, lack of comprehensive sex ed can have larger economic consequences.

“Our research shows that when women have children as teenagers, the result is often lower education and higher poverty. This is something that we absolutely want to reduce,” Jordan said.

Jordan said teen pregnancy costs the state about 150 million dollars each year in lost potential. Her organization believes a more comprehensive approach to teaching sex ed, based on real medical evidence, will help lower that cost.

“We want to take a medically accurate evidence based approach to sex ed,” Jordan said. “We absolutely want to get real sex ed to teenagers in Mississippi, because we are still at the top of the list for national teen pregnancy.”

Jordan, formerly the director of brand marketing for a large U.S. wireless carrier company, is lending her expertise to a different but notable cause by helping the Women’s Foundation reach more of their target audience. Jordan says they are doing this through social media marketing and web based education that is informative and compelling for kids to learn.

“We really work to get comprehensive sex ed in front of teenagers. We use a lot of very sophisticated digital targeting through social media, and our Fact not Fiction website to reach as many teenagers as possible,” Jordan said.

Factnotfiction.com is a recently launched Women’s Foundation website to get accurate sex ed information to kids. Jordan says the way information comes across to its audience is important.

“The goal of Fact not Fiction program is to get medically accurate, evidence-based information in front of teenagers that is not judgmental or shame-based,” Jordan said. “We try to present it in a way that feels like entertainment so it doesn’t come across as adults preaching to kids about what to do and what not to do.”

Jordan says while her organization is making good progress, it will depend on lawmakers to take action against high teen pregnancy and STD rates by creating a comprehensive program for education.

“It will likely be a long road ahead for Mississippi. We’ve certainly made improvements and teen pregnancy rates have gone down, but Mississippi is still at a national high for teen pregnancy,” Jordan said. “This is a very important issue that needs continued focus and push toward a different approach.”