In late April, renowned sexuality educator Shafia Zaloom came to GDS to lead a sex-ed workshop for each grade. For four days, each grade took their turn spending the day with Zaloom for what some have called a “crash course” on sexual education. While many have argued that the series of workshops was “too little, too late” of an attempt by GDS to make up for the lack of sex-ed in the current Physical Education and Health curriculum, it was ultimately a combination of the school and the students who diluted the value of the sex-ed workshops.
As GDS students come from many different middle schools, each student enters the high school with a different level of knowledge about sexual education. When the sex-ed workshops were first announced, sophomore Talia Rodriguez hoped that Zaloom would focus on not only “issues that affect us as teens — stuff about protection, contraception, how to accurately prepare yourself to have sex,” but also “what exactly sex is, because a lot of people don’t get a comprehensive education in middle school.” Rodriguez also pointed out that “In middle school, they say ‘We can’t actually tell you what happens during sex, we can only tell you what happens before and after.’” Rodriguez’s experience demonstrates both the the lack of general sexual education in many middle schools and the inconsistencies in the level of sex-ed that different students received prior coming to the GDS high school. At GDS, many conversations about sex-ed do not make it past a superficial level, as the majority of conversation is spent trying to get everybody onto the same page.
Initially, many GDS students were concerned about their classmates’ immaturity derailing the sex-ed workshops. Before going into her workshop, sophomore Emily Axelrod explained, “The fact that it is a big group means that people are at different places in their knowledge, and if half the day is spent with people laughing or being too immature to learn, I think that could take away from the experience.” To that end, sophomore Lucy Vogt commented, “It was hard having the entire grade in one room but the kids in my grade acted more appropriately than I thought they would.” Although at first many sessions were interrupted by bursts of laughter, as each workshop went on students got more comfortable and began to take the material more seriously.
Even without the disruptive giggles, students were worried about talking about sex and intimacy with a large group of their peers. “I feel like people won’t be as comfortable asking questions and trying to find out the things that they really need to know because people aren’t comfortable with everyone in the grade,” said sophomore Natasha Zimmerman prior to attending her sex-ed session. Much of this issue was remedied by the use of an anonymous survey that Zaloom sent to GDS students the week before her visit to the school, asking “What do you want/ are curious to know about sex and sexuality?” Additionally, she also set up an anonymous question box in the front of the room that students could use during breaks. While having sex-ed in such a large setting was certainly not ideal, Zaloom managed the situation skillfully.
The most significant issue at the sex-ed workshops was the sparse attendance, especially among upperclassmen. The week before sex-ed met, Axelrod anticipated this trend, saying “The fact that it’s an all day event when there are no classes means that people will choose to skip and I’m worried that the people who will choose to skip are the people who need this education the most.” While each grade yielded a sizable attendance, the fact that the school deemed the workshop necessary did not stop many students from using the day to stay home and study or leave early from the workshop. Although the school took attendance at the beginning of the workshop, and again after lunch (by which point many students had left), there was no comprehensive way to enforce attendance. Still, it was not only the attendance system itself, but rather the reason behind students’ lack of incentive to attend sex-ed that highlights where GDS’s sex-ed week missed the mark.
Students’ disenchantment with sex-ed week stemmed from a preconceived notion by many individual students that they already knew everything that was going to be taught at sex-ed. “The sex-ed served in many ways to create a baseline which I think on one level is helpful but I fear that the un-nuanced nature of it leaves some people wanting more,” senior Eli Kaplan said. This “baseline” approach to sex-ed caused the widespread sentiment of “I’m not going to learn anything new” that deterred many students from attending the workshop, or prompted them to leave early. Of course, no one day workshop could be expected to cover every aspect of a high school sexual education in detail, and thus ensure that each student would learn something new. Still, without the common baseline of knowledge surrounding sexual education provided by the workshop, GDS students will not have the groundwork on which to build comprehensive conversations and learning experiences in the years to come. Thus, attending the workshop was the responsibility of each individual student for the betterment of the community so that, as a student body, we can have informed conversations about sexual education without having to start over from the beginning every time.
Ultimately, the fatal flaw of the sex-ed workshop week was not that it was “too little, too late,” but rather it was the students’ misconception that they’d only learn information they already knew that caused many to skip the workshops, preventing the student body as a whole from establishing the actual collective baseline knowledge about sex needed to inform future conversations. This unfortunate cycle is what occurs when GDS students are left to opt into crucial educational experiences on their own, and thus the only long term solution for GDS’s sex-ed problem is to establish a sexual education class from which no student can opt out without repercussions (for example, an unexcused absence notification that the school sends to a student’s parents). A class would be preferable to acting retroactively to fix gaping holes in the knowledge of the student body. Only when the school steps up to the plate and fully commits to a sexual education which no student can dodge will GDS be able to truly talk about sex.
By Shira Minsk’19