If there is one thing middle schoolers definitely do not want to talk about with adults, it is sex. You probably remember the awkwardness of middle school sex ed -- the overhead projections or sterile-looking charts. Sex education has come a long way in California, but middle school sex ed hasn’t necessarily kept up with the pressures or the technology of the digital age.
Kaity Cunnington is a seventh-grader in the Bay Area. She says it is not always easy to get answers to the kinds of questions she is starting to have. For instance, she wanted to know more about menstruation and cramps. So, like many kids today, she started looking for answers online. In other words: Googling it.
“Google is my friend,” she says. But the information she gets online is not always what she is looking for.
Out of curiosity, Kaity once looked up what “popping a cherry” meant. And what she found online was not helpful, she says. Actually, it was kind of gross.
Digital media are everywhere and hard to control. In fifth grade, Kaity saw a sexually explicit video on the photo-sharing app, Instagram. And she has seen porn pop up on Tumblr.
“Even if you only follow Disney blogs,” she says, “you still get porn on Tumblr a lot.”
Not only are some of the things she discovers shocking, she says, they're confusing.
“It's kind of scary,” she says, “because you'll be like, what is this? And then you're like, oh, and then you realize it is not what it is. And it's like you think that something is way different.”
While kids are increasingly seeking information about sex and encountering it online, teaching materials in sex-ed classes are often outdated. Linda Wilhelm plays a movie from 1992 to her seventh-grade class every year at Valley View Middle School in a Bay Area suburb. In order to make the picture clear on her old TV, she has to give it a whack. Wilhelm says it is hard for the kids to take this seriously.
Wilhelm has few materials at her disposal. Beside the video, she has a chart with some obsolete contraception information and a textbook showing the rudiments of the reproductive system. Wilhelm says, “It's basically what I call ‘the plumbing.’”
Each school district in California approves its own curriculum content. Wilhelm says her sex-ed materials have not been updated in years.
“What's really kind of alarming,” Wilhelm says, “is that even though all the social media is changing, our content, our district-approved curriculum hasn't changed at all.”
The district says it would like to modernize materials, but that takes time and money. Right now, the focus is on implementing the Common Core, new statewide education requirements.
Old materials can predate contemporary issues like online relationships, Internet pornography and the pressures of social media.
"We try to teach online safety, but not necessarily how it relates to sexuality, and all the sexting and all that," Wilhelm says. "It's not part of the curriculum.”
She gives kids resources to check out after class, things like kidshealth.org. It is a website with information on puberty and sexuality.
Monica Rodriguez says these digital tools are not in widespread use. She heads the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. It is an advocacy group for sex education. She says schools “are still focused on very traditional materials -- paper and pencils and textbooks, while young people are living their lives digitally.”
Rodriguez says part of the problem is that sex ed is not on most standardized tests, so it is not prioritized. Plus, there's always the chance fresh materials will cause an uproar. At a high school in Fremont, for example, parents petitioned to remove a new textbook. It covered topics like online dating, sexual fetishes and hooking up.
Most parents support teaching up-to-date, comprehensive sex education, Rodriguez says. But the worry about potential conflicts makes districts hesitate to update sex-ed curriculum.
“Teachers or districts fear that it's going to cause controversy,” she says, “so they just kind of put it off and put it off.”
Middle schooler Kaity Cunnington says she is lucky. She can talk to her parents about this stuff. Even so, she says she would like to have a safe place online to go for some answers. It would be less awkward than asking her parents or her teachers.
Kaity will have more sex-ed classes in high school. She hopes the videos there are not as corny as the gem from Linda Wilhelm's class.