Sex Ed the City: Oakland Youth Advocate for Comprehensive Sex Education

Taken from the July/August 2013 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

For over 10 years, Forward Together has been supporting Asian immigrant youth in becoming organizers and leaders for change in their communities. Our most recent project, led by our young people, is Sex Ed the City: More Than Just Protection, a campaign to get comprehensive sex education in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Forward Together’s 20 youth leaders launched this effort in response to the lack of sex education and services available to Oakland students.

Our youth examined their own experiences within their schools around issues like unhealthy relationships, gender oppression, homophobia, and consent. In doing so, they realized how deeply Oakland’s youth have been impacted by the lack of comprehensive sex education that is relevant to their everyday lives. Because of this, they are devoting the leadership, initiative, and creativity needed to advance research and advocacy to ensure all Oakland students have the resources and information to make healthy decision about their bodies and relationships. This work is a model for other communities working to provide youth with the full range of information and services they need to stay healthy and be who they want to be.

Getting Feedback Directly From Youth

As a first step in the campaign, our youth leaders developed a Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) project to assess the state of sex education in the Oakland Unified School District, and find out what students want sex education to look like. To answer these questions, our youth leaders collected a representative sample of over 500 surveys from OUSD middle and high school students and conducted focus groups with 32 youth participants from 5 community-based youth development groups. This research identified nine major findings:

1. Students believe that having comprehensive sex education in school is important to their lives, and they would like to spend more time on this subject. Youth identified a need for comprehensive sex education that is relevant for all students and includes information on gender, sexuality, bodies, and relationships. Students also need and want classrooms, schools, and a community culture that allows them to feel safe and empowered to make healthy decisions regarding their identity and sexual health.

2. Despite this need, almost two-thirds (62 percent) of OUSD middle and high school students reported that they that they spent no time on sex education content in the 2011-12 school year. Overall, 19 percent of students report spending just one week on sex education, when it did occur. Our youth believe that good comprehensive sex education is not just tacked on to the end of semesters, as it is too often. Students want schools to dedicate a sufficient amount of time to sex education and integrate this content throughout all related curricula and courses, as well as throughout the school environment.

3. Middle and high school students want sex education to be provided in both middle school and high school. Almost half of the high school students (46 percent) report that they have been sexually active, and some middle school students report that they have been sexually active as well. These findings make the need for accurate and age-appropriate health information beginning by 9th grade even more imperative.

4. Students report that the content they do receive is not relevant to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning (LGBTQ) youth. (See graph.) In fact, only 17 percent report that their sexual health education content is relevant to LGBTQ students. LGBTQ youth also don’t get the support they need in the school setting. One focus group participant shared that: “Being gay, I had to fight my way through school instead of getting my education like everybody else. I was violent. Even though going to school was supposed to be for learning.” Adults on school campuses should play a significant role in modeling being an ally and take initiative in addressing homophobia and transphobia in all forms.

5. The impact of not having relevant curricula affects female and LGBTQ students the most. Students expressed a need for curricula that specifically address diversity, gender, and gender roles in order to create school environments that better protect students’ physical and emotional health. Over half (54 percent) do not receive education about sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender roles. One focus group participant shared: “A lot of [LGBTQ] people have a hard time coming out to family and friends. It affects their school work, at school it’s hard for them to focus.” Students want their peers and teachers alike to be educated about the negative impacts of limiting gender roles and expectations, and to have the tools needed to combat their manifestations, both within themselves and in the community.

6. In addition, students report that they are not being taught sex education that is useful/relevant to all students; only about a quarter of student report that the sex education content is important and relevant to English Language Learners and students with disabilities, (24 and 22 percent, respectively). There is a great need for sex education that is accessible in students’ primary language, and is taught by teachers who can relate to students’ diverse experiences. Our students also identified a need for sex education that is culturally relevant and speaks directly to student’s experiences related to race, ethnicity, and culture. Sex education should also debunk cultural stereotypes and myths so all students are able to be their authentic selves without fear or judgment.

7. Most students report that they feel more comfortable getting answers about sex from friends (70 percent) rather than seeking advice from health care providers (41 percent), parent/caregivers (34 percent), or teachers (18 percent). Students ranked teachers last among adults they feel comfortable asking questions about sex. There is a need for training to ensure sex education teachers are enthusiastic and comfortable talking about this complex subject. In addition, 11 percent of students reported that there was nobody they would feel comfortable asking sex-related questions.

8. Some groups of students do not feel comfortable talking with their parents or other caregivers about sex. Asian/South Asian and Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian students reported having less communication with caregivers than Latino/Chicano and Black /African American students. Almost half (46 percent) of LGBTQ students report that their parents/caregivers do not talk to them at all about sex, compared to 27 percent of straight students. More support and skills-building to help students communicate with parents/caregivers would be beneficial and expand young people’s resources for making healthy decisions.

9. In addition to sex education, OUSD students want access to free protection and contraception and health center services in both middle school and high school. Over half of the high school students (46 percent) are sexually active or have been sexually active in the past. Most students want access to a student health center in every middle school (89 percent) and high school (98 percent) where they can ask questions and access resources and services (including condoms and other forms of protection) that complement comprehensive sex education. (Second possible graph)

Advocating for Change Both Locally and Federally

Our youth created a report entitled Let’s Get It On: Oakland Youth’s Vision for Sex Ed, which documents these findings and presents a list of recommendations intended to bring change not only to OUSD’s classroom, but also to the broader school environment, homes, and the city of Oakland as a whole.

Let’s Get it On places sex education in the framework of “sex education justice,” which:

  • Offers a view of sexuality and sexual health that includes positive body image, self-esteem, gender identity, sexual orientation, mental health, communication, and decision-making in relationships.
  • Focuses on promoting the overall health of all people, including people of color, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, and immigrant populations.
  • Maintains that sexuality is a core part of people’s lives, not a side issue.

Recommendations include steps to comply with California’s sex ed mandates and specific proposals on curricula, teacher training and qualifications; reducing stigma for LGBTQ students; establishing health centers; and creating a safe and welcoming culture in schools and the community. The recommendations are specifically linked with the OUSD’s Quality Community Schools Development effort and OUSD quality standards. (The report is available at: http://forwardtogether.org/assets/docs/2012-Lets-Get-It-On.pdf.)

To advocate for the recommendations, the Forward Together youth held a series of meetings with individual OUSD School Board members; other OUSD administrators, including the Superintendent of Instruction; and staff in the District’s Health and Wellness Department. The meetings helped shed light on the gaps in OUSD’s existing sexual health education and generated support for the youth’s work within the District. While this support has been useful to our work, the challenges around budget and other resources and implementation are still in front of us.

On a Federal level, in September 2012, Forward Together’s youth partnered with Advocates for Youth to lobby Congress in support of the “Real Education for Healthy Youth Act” (HR3324 and S1782). This legislation would ensure that all U.S. public school students have access to comprehensive sexuality education that is age-appropriate, medically accurate, and addresses the needs of LGBTQ young people.

After a busy spring, we continue to build relationships with key decision-makers and allies both within and outside the District, and to identify strategies to aid the implementation of comprehensive sex education programming that supports all students. Simultaneously, Forward Together’s young people continue to build a strong base of student engagement to ensure that our campaign advances from the ground up. To find out more about the campaign and how you can improve sexuality education in your community’s schools, visit Forward Together’s website: http://forwardtogether.org/youth-organizing/youth-organizing-campaigns.


mai doan is a Youth Organizer for Sex Ed the City at Forward Together ((formerly Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice), a multi-racial organization that works with community leaders and organizations to transform culture and policy to catalyze social change.


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