CNN | 9/23/2018 | Español | Listen

How I ended abstinence-only sex education in my school

Updated 10:11 AM ET, Wed September 12, 2018

Editor's Note: Abigail McElroy is a senior at Strath Haven High School in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - I am not a piece of tape.

This particular metaphor was a favorite of Amnion Pregnancy Center, a crisis pregnancy center (or faux abortion clinic) that visited my health class sophomore year to talk about "healthy relationships."

Even though more and more studies have shown that abstinence-only sex education impacts students negatively, neither reducing teen pregnancy nor the transmission of STDs, abstinence-only organizations still play an active role in sex education in my home state of Pennsylvania and across the United States.

Recently, many have resorted to scare tactics to convey their one main point: No one will love you if you have sex before marriage. They use disturbing metaphors to relay this frightening idea, including comparing young women who have premarital sex to tape that has lost its critical feature -- its stickiness.

When the Amnion representatives visited my school, they went even further. They spent over an hour telling us that having sex would ruin us for our future spouses and warning us against the "steep slope of arousal." Because, didn't you hear, hand-holding and kissing are simply stepping stones to sex, and we all but lack self-control.

After Amnion's degrading presentation, I contacted my high-school principal with my concerns about the quality of information and legitimacy of the organization, but Amnion returned the next year.

So, I went one step further and attended the monthly school board meeting.

During the open-mic section of the board's August meeting, I got up to speak. I started by emphasizing the positive aspects of my school's sex education curriculum. While Pennsylvania standards only require that students learn about HIV, STDs and abstinence, my health class was relatively comprehensive, including information about contraceptives, LGBT terminology and drugs and alcohol.

Next, I highlighted how Amnion's presentation directly contradicted the choice-based curriculum my school had built. Amnion is one of thousands of crisis pregnancy centers in the United States, or pro-life nonprofits that often pose as abortion clinics or licensed medical facilities with the active goal of stopping women from getting abortions. Its presentation preached that we are out of control and that abstinence is the only way to guarantee happily married lives. In short, their organization seeks to manipulate women out of their right to choose.

And Amnion's absurd claim that premarital sex makes people less able to form meaningful relationships poses real harm to all students, especially those who have been victims of sexual assault. Not only did these students experience trauma, but Amnion's premise asserts that their assaulters robbed their future spouses of intimacy and connection.

By allowing Amnion to present year after year, my school supported a group that put its religious beliefs above our right to complete information.

Though Amnion tried to defend the program, saying it was both "secular" and "factual," my school district chose to listen to me instead. Instead of shrugging off my concerns, the board investigated and sought to resolve the problem, both evaluating why it had happened in the first place and why it couldn't be allowed to continue.

In the end, the superintendent, Lisa Palmer, announced that Amnion would be banned from presenting in health class. In an email to the district's parents, she wrote, "Moving forward, core sexual education topics will be covered by our own Wallingford-Swarthmore teachers, not outside presenters. This will allow us to more closely control the information presented, again with our goal of presenting factual, balanced information that empowers our students to make healthy choices."

But this is only the beginning. While students at my high school are now free from Amnion's fear-based presentations, Amnion also speaks at 25 other area schools, and it is just one of many crisis pregnancy centers in Pennsylvania.

I am reaching out to friends across the state to expand my model of speaking at school board meetings with the goal of removing Amnion and similar crisis pregnancy centers from public high schools. I'm also leading a letter-writing campaign encouraging my state legislature to pass a bill mandating medically accurate sex education in all public schools.

These changes would ensure that teenagers know that healthy relationships are built on communication and consent, choice and confidence -- not fear.

But this battle is about more than just high school sex education. Over the past month, I've discovered that my voice will be heard if and when I raise it. As the school year begins, we, as students, need to remember that we all have voices. We need to speak to our partners and communicate well. We need to speak to our teachers and advocate for our needs.

None of us are tape, but we do have extraordinary power to bring people together.


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