Who Is Teaching Sex Ed.?

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This morning, I was speaking to a friend who works for the Minnesota Department of Public Health.  His job there involves HIV/AIDS testing, awareness, and education programming for the Minneapolis area.  He told me an interesting fact.  In Minneapolis, over the past year there has been a 100% increase in the number of HIV infections among people tested in his clinic.  When I asked him if the number of people being tested had increased during the same testing period, I expected him to say, “Yes."  One could argue, therefore, that the increase in HIV(+) people being tested was not truly a 100% increase.  I was surprised and dismayed when he responded that the number of people being tested was actually smaller than the previous reporting period.  If the number of cases doubled over the previous year but the number of people being tested was actually lower, what does that mean?  My friend, Charlie, and I simultaneously said over the phone, “What the heck is going on in Minneapolis?”

This fall I am teaching a seminar at Northwestern called, “Who Discovered HIV?”  It is a historical retrospective of the first 10-15 years of the AIDS epidemic.  Last year, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was shared between three scientists.  Two of them, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, won for discovering HIV.  The award in Physiology or Medicine was controversial last year because many people felt that the Nobel Committee should have also recognized Robert Gallo, an American biomedical researcher.  Why wasn’t he recognized?  That is one of the questions we will be trying to answer in class this fall.  When I meet with the class next week I plan to share with them the information that Charlie gave me about his clinic in Minneapolis.  But before hanging up on Charlie, I had the chance to share some information with him that I have learned from the students in my class.  I thought I would share it with you as well.

Last week I had the students in my class fill out a questionnaire.  I wanted to gauge their base-line knowledge of HIV & AIDS.   What I found out, and what I shared with Charlie on the phone, was surprising to me.  Some of the answers I found to be the most interesting were:

When asked if they thought condoms offer protection against the spread of HIV, 27% of the class answered that condoms did not offer protection or they did not know whether or not they did.

When asked if they thought HIV could be transmitted by kissing an individual with AIDS, 29% of the class said that they thought it could happen or they did not know if it could happen.

When asked if they thought that HIV could be transmitted by sharing eating utensils with an AIDS patient, 41% of the class said that it could be transmitted or they did not know if it could be transmitted by sharing eating utensils.

After being surprised by some of the questionnaire responses, I asked my seminar class what kind of sex education they had in school before coming to college.  Almost to a person, everyone in the class said that IF they had sex education, they had to bring a signed permission slip from their parents that allowed them to attend the classes.  If the parents did not sign the permission slip or, as was the case with some of the students in my class, the permission slip was lost, the students were sent to the library to study.  If you didn’t have a permission slip for whatever reason, the default was to miss the class.  When I was in school, sex ed. was mandatory and if you missed the class you were marked as absent.  A friend of mine recently told me that nuns taught him sex ed.  In his words, “They were embarrassed and visibly uncomfortable, but they taught it all.”  Not having children of my own, I really had no idea how things have changed.  Is withholding information that could save their child’s life someday something that some parents support these days?  If it is the case that parents want to be able to teach their children the information at home, what happens when the parents aren’t teaching the most up-to-date, scientifically accurate information?

Again, what the heck is happening in Minneapolis?

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