Before the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Healthy Youth Act of 2009, abstinence-until-marriage was the only standard for sexual education across the state.
Now, school districts still prioritize abstinence when discussing sexual education, but they are also required to provide information about STIs, FDA-approved methods of contraception, healthy relationships and sexual assault awareness. Students get this information in a ninth grade health class, which they must complete to graduate high school.
Elizabeth Finley, spokesperson for Sexual Health Initiatives For Teens NC, said North Carolina’s laws are consistent with what research shows is the best way to provide sexual education.
“North Carolina’s sex ed provides for a pretty good range that’s in line with those national best practices, and where it gets hard is in the implementation,” she said.
Finley said accurate sexual education information is important for students to make healthy decisions for themselves.
“I think we’ve all heard horror stories about bad sex education, and even in North Carolina before we had our good sex ed laws we would hear things like, students would be told condoms don’t work or they have holes in them or that birth control fails all of the time,” she said. “And it just doesn’t give young people the information they need to make healthy decisions for themselves.”
Although sexual education in North Carolina is more comprehensive than in most states, the time spent covering it is sparse.
Sex education is usually taught as part of a health and physical education course during a student’s first year of high school.
Caitlin Rigolini, a senior who graduated from Davie County High School in 2014, said sex education was a minor part of the curriculum in her health class.
“I don’t think it was effective because it was so brief, I barely remember it,” she said. “I never had to take an entire course solely dedicated to sex ed, so I mainly learned about sex ed through my family, friends and the Internet.”
Troy Capalbo, a current junior at Chapel Hill High School, said about an eighth of his health and physical education class was dedicated to sexual education.
“You only have to take a gym and health course freshman year, and three-quarters of it is gym and one-quarter is health, but like, probably about half of that one-quarter of health class is spent on the sex education stuff,” he said.
Isabelle Hirschy, a junior who graduated from Panther Creek High School Class in 2015, wrote a policy brief on sexual education for a UNC public policy class. She said the time window allocated for sex education is too minimal to give adequate information about STIs and contraception.
“There’s no, like, specific ‘here’s how you use contraception,’ or ‘here’s where you can access it,’ or ‘here’s what you do if you think you have an STI,’” she said.
Finley said in North Carolina, the state mandates that local school districts implement sexual education that meets basic criteria, but allows each school board to decide how to meet that criteria. She said oftentimes, school systems leave those implementation decisions to individual schools.
“Even though there might be a school board policy that covers the district that says, ‘You have to teach these things,’ what students actually get is varied from classroom to classroom and teacher to teacher,” Finley said.
Hirschy said even though the time allotted for sex education was minimal at her high school, a whole day was devoted to watching a Lifetime movie about a high school syphilis epidemic.
Capalbo said he learned about different contraceptives and that his teacher demonstrated how to use a condom by putting one on a phallic-shaped wooden object. He said he thinks sex education would be more informative if there wasn’t such a heavy focus on abstinence.
“Probably a way to make it better would just be elongating the courses that we have to take for it,” he said. “Honestly, the couple weeks that we spend on it doesn’t feel sufficient enough and it’s not enough time, I think, to cover the full scope of the issues that we should be going over.”
Hirschy said parents can opt their children out of the curriculum, potentially preventing some students from getting any sexual education in school. She also said the curriculum is very heteronormative and is not inclusive of LGBTQ students.
In fact, the guidelines laid out by the Healthy Youth Act exclude LGBTQ people.
“The best lifelong means of prevention is fidelity within marriage, including the value of monogamous, heterosexual marriage as an example of a healthy relationship,” states one of the content requirements under the act.
North Carolina’s lets local school districts set the specific curriculum they use, as long as they adhere to the general guidelines set by the state, Hirschy said.
“The legislation itself is pretty bare bones, they’re missing an opportunity to have a healthy population and a safer population,” she said.
Mary Kathryn Midgett, a junior who graduated from Greensboro Day School, said sex education was taught as part of a Health and Wellness course that also covered drug and alcohol use, CPR, and other basic health needs.
“The course did a good job of teaching safe sex — instead of purely abstinence — and it also covered all of the STDs and possible consequences of unprotected sex,” she said.
At UNC, incoming students must complete the online Haven module as part of Carolina’s sexual violence prevention initiatives.
Midgett said Haven focused on consent more than the sex education she got in high school.
““I think we definitely learned the basics of consent in high school — like ‘no means no’ — but not quite to the same level as UNC,” she said.
However, because Haven is an online module, it is easy for students to skim through the material rather than engage meaningfully with the information, and Hirschy said Haven doesn’t require students to pay attention to the material.
“The people you really have to get to engage are the ones who are probably more likely to just sort of breeze through these modules,” she said. “You know, the ones who don’t really care that much, or the ones who don’t think it’s important or applies to them and might be missing out on these important ideas about consent.”
Hirschy said college is not the most effective time to teach consent to students for the first time.
“I mean, honestly, I think UNC’s in a tough position because by the time people are, like, 18 years old and starting college, you kind of miss that window where you can really introduce them to consent before they start engaging in sexual activity,” she said.