Warning: This piece contains some content related to sexual assault.
As a graduate of a Catholic high school, I am extremely concerned about the way sex education is taught in Catholic high schools. While I received a wonderful education and had amazing teachers, the way they taught sex ed was flawed in many ways.
We were taught sex ed in theology class, not health class, so everything from contraception to sexuality was taught through the lens of Catholic doctrine, never taught objectively. This caused a number of issues.
For starters, we were told not to use condoms. According to Catholic teachings, sex is a total gift of oneself and barrier contraceptives prevent that “total gift” from being given, which harms the bond between sexual partners. We were told instead to use natural family planning, or the fertility awareness method. This requires the tracking of menstrual cycles to prevent pregnancy. They told us this method is more effective than condoms.
When used correctly, condoms are 98 percent effective, and 85 percent when used incorrectly. The fertility awareness method is 76-88 percent effective, although combining tracking methods can improve its efficacy. The fertility awareness method is not recommended for those with irregular cycles and does not prevent STIs. Personally, I don’t think it’s a great idea to give a room of teenage boys a reason not to wear condoms.
Despite discouraging us from using condoms, it was stated in the school handbook that if a girl became pregnant, a meeting would be called between her family and the administration to discuss her future at the school. The handbook didn’t mention what would happen if a male student impregnated someone.
We were also taught that emergency contraceptives such as Plan B and daily birth control methods are abortifacients, or substances that induce a miscarriage. However, emergency contraception works by delaying ovulation to prevent conception. Taking emergency contraception during your ovulation window will not work. Therefore, even according to the Catholic belief that life begins at conception, emergency contraception is not an abortion.
Standard birth control thins the lining of the uterus so that a fertilized egg will not implant in the uterus, which is considered an abortion according to the belief that life begins at conception. What they didn’t tell us, however, is that birth control works by first preventing ovulation altogether. It also thickens cervical mucus to block sperm. Thinned uterine lining is the third prevention against pregnancy, but it also treats painful periods and endometriosis and can protect the lining against cancer. People should be fully informed about how birth control works in case they have a moral objection or health concerns, but we weren’t fully informed. I thought thinning the lining of the uterus was the primary way birth control works, when that just isn’t true.
One of my biggest issues with my sex ed is that we were not taught about consent. Everyone considered sexual assault a sin, but we were never told what asking for consent should look like. We were only told to abstain from sex until marriage. Consent being specific, enthusiastic and freely-given was never mentioned, and I fear the abstinence-focused language makes those ideas harder to understand. Will students know saying “yes” once does not mean “yes” for everything? If young people know their partners were taught to say no, will they pressure them until they say yes?
Our sex ed was anything but LGBTQ+ inclusive, which isn’t surprising given the Catholic belief that gay sex is a sin because gay couples can’t reproduce. However, they taught this belief without sensitivity to the possibility of there being LGBTQ+ students in the class, which there absolutely were.
Joe Mantych, a sophomore English major at Washington University, received his high school sex ed at St. Louis University High School. Mantych’s education differed from mine, because he said although contraceptives were stigmatized, they were not explicitly discouraged. While he said consent was glossed over, they were at least taught to ask for it. However, like me, he was only taught sex ed in the context of theology class, and was taught that any sexual act that couldn’t result in pregnancy was a sin. At an all-boy school, he said female anatomy and contraceptives were only briefly mentioned.
“I was 16 as a sophomore, and I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know. They covered the bare essentials without going into any detail, so I would say that it really didn’t prepare me for anything,” Mantych said.
Mantych said people generally accepted that sex ed in Catholic schools is taught according to Catholic doctrine, although many did not necessarily agree.
“Because it was an all-boys school, I feel like definitely some of the more religious kids probably listened to it and agreed with it. I’d say the general consensus was that was what a Catholic school was supposed to tell us, which it is. That isn’t really the teacher’s fault, that’s just the school that it is,” Mantych said.
I understand that Catholic doctrine is not to be changed in accordance with public opinion. I do hope, however, that administrators will be more forthcoming when teaching students about sex, even if they have to make a distinction between how the science works and what the Church teaches about it. I hope they begin to teach with sensitivity and inclusivity through their language. I hope they realize that many students will not wait until marriage, and need to be prepared to be sexually active adults who understand safe sex and consent.