On a Friday afternoon, the Humboldt County Office of Education is bustling. In an office overlooking a greenbelt, Beth Chaton talks energetically about the state of sex education, hopping up from her seat repeatedly to grab curricula, reports and other materials off her crowded bookshelves.
This, despite the fact that Chaton has barely been involved in sex education for the last four years, when state funding for in-school programs dried up, taking half of her job with it. Now the program coordinator for the county's afterschool programs and Redwood EdVentures — which connects students with the outdoors — Chaton still talks about sex education, its local successes and shortcomings, with enthusiasm.
New state laws show promise, she says, but without accompanying funds to carry out their mandates, small rural areas continue to see problems with unwanted teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease.
In the mid-1990s, Chaton became involved with sex education in Humboldt County. She helped develop Spare Change, a youth peer education group. The county began tracking teen pregnancy rates and advising schools on sex ed.
Chaton coordinated a state funded grant to focus on "local solutions to locally identified issues," one of which was teen pregnancy, she says. She and her team addressed that in many ways — not just educating young people about contraceptives, but also about career development and other forward-looking notions.
It seemed to work. From 1996 to 2011, teen birth rates — the number per 1,000 residents — dropped 38 percent, according to a report prepared for the Humboldt County Children and Families Commission. The actual number of births per year to Humboldt County teens between the ages of 15 and 19 fell from 197 to 102 in the same span.
But local efforts faced funding adversity. Chaton says state money was cut during the Schwarzenegger administration and again in 2011. So schools were mandated to continue sex education without state support. The county programs — covering a vast array of sex, pregnancy and health issues — all but withered. The local Planned Parenthood, sheltered by donor support and (permanently threatened) federal funding, was able to preserve the Spare Change program and continued to do in-classroom education, but not at the level it previously had. (Sometimes, though, more widespread controversy over Planned Parenthood makes administrators reticent to bring the nonprofit in for sex ed. The county office of education, Chaton says, is seen as a more "neutral" disseminator of information.)
The lack of funding has also led to a gap in local knowledge. Chaton used to compile data from the state health department, looking at birth rates for teens in certain area codes and addressing issues on a regional basis. Nowadays, that information isn't readily available (that's why the above statistics end in 2011), so educators, lawmakers and health providers don't know where problems are persisting or growing.
Despite that, Chaton says the local office of education, under Superintendent Garry Eagles, has been a strong supporter of sex education, doing what it can with limited finances to preserve Humboldt's successful programs. The office offered a training this year — the first since 2010 — at a discounted rate to about 40 teachers, school nurses and other school staff, people on the ground teaching sex ed directly to students.
Still, Chaton says, sex ed laws are currently an "unfunded mandate." While the model is slowly changing for the better, sex ed has also fallen victim to the broad focus on standardized test scores that dictated school funding for years. "Health is not a requirement of the high school exit exam," she says. There's also little in the way of enforcement, in contrast to math or science. If schools are skating by with inadequate sex education, there's little recourse from the state.
The de-funding of local programs is a problem, she says, because it leads to inadequate sex ed. Often science or physical education teachers are tasked with sex ed because it shares some basic similarities with their preferred subjects — anatomy, health, etc. — and they're already on the payroll. But many teachers, Chaton says, are uncomfortable with or uninterested in the topic.
"If they aren't comfortable teaching the topic, it can do more damage," she says. That's because they'll rush through the material, stick to abstinence-only philosophies, or not let the students ask the things they're truly curious about. "It takes a special person to teach the topic, to make the kids feel safe and comfortable."
New state law makes sex education mandatory in public schools beginning in 7th grade. Until this year, sex ed courses were opt-in — parents had to sign a note saying they wanted their kid to attend the courses. Now they are opt-out. Most parents, she says, want their kids to receive sex education. Those who don't are a vocal minority.
Other aspects of the new laws change curricula, requiring public schools to include instruction on gender identity, sexual orientation and affirmative consent, in addition to updates to the HIV/AIDS, pregnancy and sexual health subjects previously included.
Chaton says the sex ed climate has changed in many ways in recent years. From upper elementary school on, kids are subjected to the "most sexualized content" of any generation, she says, "without the context of sex education."
Beyond mass media, pornography exists in a different paradigm than ever before. In the old days, exposure to pornography for most kids amounted to finding their uncle's stash of Playboys. Now, a world of porn, and misinformation, is at every keyboard-wielding kid's fingertips.
Chaton has spoken with kids who've appeared unconcerned about sexting and other technology-borne sexual acts, which, she says, can "screw up your whole future if it falls into the wrong hands." Nationally, teens have committed suicide after risqué photos sent in confidence were broadcast to their peers.
"It's a different awareness of sexuality" that this generation deals with, Chaton says. That requires sex education to keep up — one encouraging sign, she says, is that educators are finding ways to address the issues that kids are interested in, giving students more control over the information.
The best education, especially when it comes to teen pregnancy prevention, is good, accurate health information, coupled with developing basic life skills, like negotiating. When Chaton meets with students, she has them write down a few things about themselves, including what they want — often it's to make money or to go to college. "How would an unintended pregnancy or an STD affect those plans?" she asks them.
Chaton thinks desperation and demoralization — not uncommon in poor, rural areas — are underlying causes of risky sexual behavior and their unintended consequences. Aside from good education, she says, the most important thing you can give kids to help them stay safe is hope.
During sex ed courses, Beth Chaton offers to answer anonymous questions from students, encouraging them to ask what they're genuinely curious about. She won't answer "how-to" questions in regard to sexual activities, nor will she talk about her personal life or beliefs. She also tells them that nothing shocks her — in an effort to reduce questions designed to do exactly that.
These are real questions — spelling errors and all — submitted by 7th and 8th graders over the last several years:
Do animals go through puberty?
What is an orgy?
Why do people harshly judge the LGBT community?
How do guys "bust a nut"?
Can you get pregnant from anal?
Is it bad to watch porn on electronics?
What do you do if you are getting raped?
Why do men get erections?
What does gender role mean?
Can you go blind from masturbating too much? That's what my dad said
Will your baby's body or looks change if you just got pregnate and had sex with someone else?
Can you get pregnant from your period even if you don't have sex?
Is it true 2 women can have a baby using bone marrow?
When are girls suppost to start periods?
Does your dick have a bone?
What is a popping cherry?
Where does the word sex come from who made it up?
How do you come out as LGBTQ+ to family?
Why do people get stereotyped by their sexuality?
Why do males have nipples/breasts?
Where is the location of where you can get condoms......because I need some
Is it okay to have itchy nipples?
Why do men have breasts?
What should you do if you walk in on your mom and dad?
What kind of foods make a penis bigger?
If you only stick the tip of the penis in the vagina can you still get pregnant?
Why do some hospitals have a box of condoms and their agains teen sex?
Can animals get STDs?
How do you know when you're being abused by your boyfriend?
Is it okay to have the urge to masturbate?
How did we not get STDs or Hiv in the wild or before condoms and stuff?
Can hermaphrodites have sex with each other?