Photo illustration Paige Morse and Cassidy Wang
Julia* (Names of students have been changed to maintain anonymity) is a sexually active senior who often uses no protection while having sex, despite having access to birth control. She was “always on the pill, but I never actually took the pill every day.”
According to a Harbinger survey of 274 students from January 7 to 14 through Google Forms, Julia is not alone. 41 percent of Algonquin students have ever had sex, and of those students, 26 percent use no protection regularly.
Algonquin students who responded to the survey are in line with the national average. In 2015, 41 percent of high schoolers had ever had sexual intercourse according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Algonquin offers a month-long sex education program as a part of the Sophomore Health and Fitness curriculum. The program encourages abstinence and warns about the dangers of unprotected sex, aiming to prepare students for real-life situations.
Principal Dr. Sara Pragluski Walsh remarked, “Not all schools teach it, and I commend Algonquin for teaching it.”
According to Sophomore Health and Fitness teacher Melissa Arvanigian, the sex education unit begins with addressing what a healthy relationship looks like compared with an unhealthy relationship. Then, students review the male and female anatomy, since most learned it in freshman biology class. From there, Arvanigian and Sophomore Health and Fitness teacher Alison Robidoux discuss pregnancy from conception to delivery.
Contraception is discussed after pregnancy, according to Arvanigian. The health teachers go over the many forms of birth control to promote safe sex if students choose to be sexually active, no matter what their sexual preference is.
“Whether you are heterosexual or have same sex relationships, it doesn’t matter,” Arvanigian said. “The only time I talk more traditional when it comes to sexual preference is because of pregnancy, since that is typically male and female.”
Bennett* is a sexually active student who has engaged in same-sex intercourse. He feels that the sex education curriculum touches on safe same-sex relationships, but could spend more time on the topic.
“They did [discuss safe same-sex relationships], but it felt kind of rushed,” Bennett said. “Out of what we learned if we were ever in that situation, I think [the curriculum] was pretty good.”
Last semester, Arvanigian invited seniors Tessa DesMarais and Taylor Murphy to present a project they created in Science Innovations class to the health students. They informed students about the LGBT+ community, cleared up misconceptions and shared resources with them.
“We try to make [sex education applicable] for everybody, not just for a certain type of student,” Arvanigian said.
Arvanigian stressed that Algonquin’s Physical Education department promotes abstinence as the most effective form of birth control and protection against sexually transmitted diseases.
“We definitely speak about abstinence because that is the only one hundred percent way of protecting yourself not only from pregnancy but from sexually transmitted diseases,” Arvanigian said. “If people are choosing to be sexually active, the second most effective [form of protection] is condoms because that is the only contraception that protects everybody from STDs and pregnancy.”
Dave* is a senior and one of Arvanigian’s former sophomore health and fitness students. He has never had sex, but he thinks Algonquin has a strong sex education program compared with other schools.
“The sex education program is good at Algonquin,” Dave said. “Ms. A does a great job.”
An anonymous respondee to the Harbinger survey praised the health department for teaching about different forms of contraception and felt that the teachers did not promote abstinence too heavily.
“I appreciate the fact that we don’t push abstinence or anything like that,” the respondee wrote. “Sex and sex ed isn’t about religion; it’s about staying safe, and that is something I find very important. [The class is] comfortable, [and the] health teachers do a good job.”
Walsh believes that the sex education program at Algonquin has remained strong because of the collaboration that exists between departments across the building.
“The physical education department is always talking to the guidance department, and they’re always talking to the adjustment counselors, ‘What can we weave in?’” Walsh said. “They’ve been talking to me, ‘What does our data say? How do we support this?’ They talk to the nurses, ‘What else can we do?’ That network of connections strengthens the things that we are doing really well and helps us backfill any weaknesses.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 percent of high schoolers in the United States had had sexual intercourse during the previous three months. Of these students, 43 percent did not use a condom the last time they had sex and 14 percent did not use any method to prevent pregnancy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance found that the amount of high school students not using any protection has decreased since the 1990s. According to the Harbinger survey, Algonquin has a higher rate of unprotected sex than the U.S. average, sitting 12 percent above the country.
At Algonquin, 18 percent of sexually active females have taken emergency contraception (Plan B) at some point in their life.
Senior Mia* does not use any form of contraception when having sex with her boyfriend. Because of this, she has taken emergency contraception before.
“Personally I don’t use protection,” Mia said. “I don’t like the feeling of it, and you’re in the moment and it just kind of happens. Also, I feel embarrassed to go and buy [condoms].”
Julia traces her lack of protection use back to her two previous sexual relationships, where she felt that using a condom would place a burden on the boys she had been with.
“I think it was just that I didn’t have any respect for myself, and they just didn’t take the initiative,” Julia said. “They didn’t want to go get it. I didn’t want to ask….I didn’t want to have to have them buy them.”
Julia now understands how imperative it is for people, and especially women, to speak up about contraception in order to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and STDs.
“You need to put your foot down, you need to respect your body and say, ‘Get a condom or you’re not getting any,’” Julia said. “I could never bring myself to do that because I didn’t have enough respect for myself.”
Julia has learned from her past experiences that many teenagers have not yet reached an age where they can make informed decisions involving their bodies. Despite realizing this and feeling guilty for not protecting herself, she continued to have unprotected sex.
“I was just dumb and young because teenagers don’t have the mental capacity to think about all of the consequences of their actions,” Julia said. “Yeah, I could get pregnant doing this, am I still going to do it? Yeah, I am.”
Arvanigian believes the reason behind some students failing to use protection could be attributed to a long-standing attitude that bad things will never happen to them.
“[Teenagers have the] ‘It’s not going to happen to me, I’m invincible,’ mentality, and it’s been like that for a long time,” Arvanigian said. “With the immaturity of the teenage brain, it is what it is.”
According to Arvanigian, students should be having conversations with their partners about contraception before engaging in sexual activities.
“If you’re mature enough to be in a relationship with somebody, and you’re mature enough to possibly think about being sexually active, then you should be mature enough to have these open conversations with people in regards to methods that would be beneficial to both of you to keep you and your partner safe,” Arvanigian said.
Bennett used protection the first time he had sex, but has not used any since that time, since he felt “very comfortable” with his partner.
“Once you get to the point when you don’t want to use protection anymore, I guess it’s just because you know you won’t contract anything, but that’s from a teenager’s point of view,” Bennett said. “I come from a gay relationship, but heterosexual relationships are more [focused on] how you never know if you could get pregnant.”
Walsh believes that “one kid not being protected is too many,” and wishes to find out why students are choosing to have sex with no protection.
“We need to reflect on our messaging and we need to ask the children why,” Walsh said. “Why did you not use sexual protection? Was it that you didn’t have it available? Was it that there were drugs or alcohol involved and it wasn’t something you thought to use in that moment? Is it because we didn’t properly educate you on the importance of it? We need to know the why behind the number.”
Senior Lauren* has been in a committed relationship for 13 months, and has only had sex while using a condom and being on a birth control pill.
“I don’t think people realize that [pregnancy] is very real,” Lauren said. “It can happen to you. Having random hookups and not using a condom is very careless, and they just don’t understand the risks of not using one. So many people are getting abortions nowadays too, so we can’t always see [pregnancy as a result of unprotected sex].”
Julia agrees that if teenagers choose to have unprotected sex, they must take responsibility for their actions, and learn from them.
“A lot of people don’t learn from their mistakes,” Julia said. “They get an abortion, but they keep having unprotected sex. They keep making these careless mistakes, because to them it’s this quick, easy fix.”
Senior Victoria* has never had sex, but sees the importance of contraception and believes she will use it when the time comes.
“Of course [I will use protection], unless I am trying to start a family and I am 32 and done with my career,” Victoria said. “I am terrified of [unplanned pregnancy], so I would make sure I am both on birth control [pills] and using a condom.”
According to Arvanigian, the Physical Education department is constantly updating the sex education program every semester, allowing students to be a part of the decision-making.
“At the end of the semester I always ask the kids honestly and openly what they liked about the semester, what they didn’t like, and what they wished they could have learned more about,” Arvanigian said.
“Every semester I look back and I like to go through what works and what doesn’t work, what needs to be updated and what doesn’t,” Arvanigian said. “A lot changes from sophomore year all the way to senior year, so I have to make sure that we are giving not only the correct information, but the most current information.”
Julia believes that the sex education curriculum should be updated to address the new wave of hookup culture among the youth.
“I definitely think it’s important for hookup culture to be incorporated into our sex education because a lot of what I remember from my sex education here was to make sure your partner is clean, make sure your partner uses a condom,” Julia said. “With this hookup culture no one has a partner, they have a new partner every night, so they can’t go ask some guy they met at a party two minutes ago to go get tested for STDs. That’s not realistic. I think they need to stress that you need to be using a condom every single time, even when you’re drunk.”
Julia also expressed concern with the gap between learning sex education and being sexually active. She feels that the material should be refreshed in students’ minds after sophomore year.
“I learned the sex education stuff when I was a sophomore, but it didn’t really pertain to me until my junior and senior year,” Julia said. “I think sex ed should be something that is enforced all years because by the time it actually happened for me I didn’t remember. I didn’t really know all the dangers and the risks.”
Arvanigian has collaborated with Senior Health and Fitness teacher Kristen Morcone to bridge the gap between the sophomore and senior year curricula, and the pair continue to work together to remind students of sex education throughout their time at Algonquin.
“Ms. Morcone is now in charge of the senior program, and she is doing a fabulous job [teaching] some information for the seniors before they go off to college,” Arvanigian said. “That includes different things about relationships and some sexual education information too before they go wherever they are going to go after they leave these walls. With us working together as a team, we constantly try to update our programs.”
Walsh believes that there is always room for improvement in the sex education program as the world continues to change.
“There’s always that one variable that we could do better at, that we could reach out to a different community to support,” Walsh said. “Times are changing. What kids are exposed to is changing. The things we educate our children on are changing.”
Despite changes being implemented in the program, Arvanigian believes that change begins with the decisions students make.
“I can hope that what I have shared with them and what I have taught them can help them make the right decision, but often times through teenage years people make decisions that are not always the best for them at that time,” Arvanigian said. “Being responsible for your own sexual health is something that I can only suggest, since ultimately the decision is theirs.”