When radio-televisionfilm sophomore Holly Cook first came to UT, she had never taken a formal health or sex education course. Cook, who attended Clear Lake High School in Houston, learned what she knew about sex from her father, who is a biology teacher, and from friends and the Internet.
Cook’s story is not unique. Many Texas high schools do not offer any sex education whatsoever. Most high schools that do offer sex education focus heavily on abstinence. Across the board, UT freshmen arrive on campus with wildly varying sex education experiences.
“The breadth and depth of how sex ed is taught is really determined locally, so you can have quite a difference in approach within one county,” Texas Education Agency spokesperson Debbie Ratcliffe said. “In one community they may only talk about abstinence, and in the other ones, they may have lengthy discussions about all the different types of contraception. ...It can impact [students] pretty dramatically.”
Five years ago, Texas stopped requiring that high school curriculums include health class, in which sex education was usually taught. When sex education is offered, the state’s guideline is that the curriculum must “present abstinence as the preferred choice of behavior for unmarried persons of school age” and “devote more attention to abstinence than to any other behavior.”
Beyond that, sex education is up to the discretion of each individual district, Ratcliffe said. The result is a state-wide patchwork of sex education levels. In summer and fall 2014, the University enrolled 6551 first-year students from a combined 908 feeder schools.
Santiago Sanchez, Plan II and biochemistry sophomore, attended Seven Lakes High School in Katy, where a health course was required. Sanchez said the course emphasized abstinence above all else.
“I do not consider my sex education to be have been ‘good’ or useful,” Sanchez said. “How to properly put on and store a condom – the latter was not covered at all, if I remember correctly. Consent is another critical component of sex education that was, at least, conspicuously absent from my school’s curriculum.”
Michelle Zhang, Plan II and business honors freshman, took sex education as part of an optional health course her sophomore year at Westwood High School in Austin. She said she does not recall learning safe-sex or contraceptive methods.
“I just remember it being really weird for everyone, and I remember, ‘these are different STDs, and here are the symptoms for them,’” Zhang said. “It made me pretty scared about STDs, so they accomplished one thing.”
Although he took an online health class while at Highland Park High School, Thomas Mylott, Plan II and American studies junior, said the majority of what he learned about sexual behavior came from his parents, on the Internet and a middle school program promoting abstinence.
“My parents instilled in me a good sense of being responsible,” Mylott said.
Susan Tortolero, a public health professor at The University of Texas School of Public Health who researches sex education in Texas, said she has found even the best courses are only so effective on students and, ultimately, parents have the most influence on sex education. The type of sex education taught is not as important as the effectiveness of the curriculum.
“It really only matters if the curriculum is effective in making behavior changes,” Tortolero said. “There have been some abstinence-only programs that have been shown to be effective in changing behavior.”
Last month, the Texas House approved a budget amendment that would move $3 million from the state HIV and STD Awareness fund to further fund abstinence education.
The amendment will not take effect unless it is included in the final state budget jointly determined by the Senate and the House.
UT does not require that students take health classes — or any classes — that address sexual education. The extent to which sexual issues are covered for all incoming students is at freshman orientation, when orientation advisers act in a play called “Get Sexy, Get Consent.”
Still, Zhang said, she feels she figured out what she needed to know eventually.
“I feel like most of the dialogue surrounding sex doesn’t come from class — it comes from the people around you and living life,” Zhang said. “Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with who you hang out with — and with the personal experiences everyone has.”