On a recent Friday afternoon, about 20 students at University Laboratory High School were sprawled across blue wooden bleachers in the gym, watching statistics and illustrations of sexually transmitted diseases fly past on a screen. Physician Mildred Nelson’s accompanying lecture kept their attention.
“Kareem, if you have Hepatitis C, you have a 2.2 percent chance of giving it to your girlfriend,” Nelson told one of the students.
“That’s good, right?” joked Kareem.
“Any chance isn’t favorable,” Andi Phillips, University High’s health teacher, said authoritatively and seriously before students could react.
Sex education has changed at University High, a selective public school administered by the University of Illinois, since Phillips began teaching there in 2007, according to assistant director Sue Kovacs.
“The first teacher we had when I was here very early didn’t feel comfortable with teaching sex ed, and so her sex ed was very basic and very by-the-book,” Kovacs said. “And there were, even with that, a few comments or questions about it, but Andi has a way of teaching it matter-of-factly and very openly.”
Sixty-five percent of Illinois sex education teachers teach “comprehensive sex education,” including an emphasis on sexual abstinence until marriage or older, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and contraception methods, according to a survey conducted by the University of Chicago Medical Center in 2003 and 2004. While there is no federal or state law mandating sex education, Illinois state law requires that an emphasis be placed on abstinence before marriage whenever sex education is taught.
“I teach on abstinence by addressing that obviously, if you’re not doing anything, you’re not going to catch anything; you’re not gonna get an STD (sexually transmitted disease). But, we have to define what abstinence is,” Phillips said. “Because if somebody says ‘I’m abstinent, I don’t have intercourse,’ but is still participating in non-coital activities, they’re still at risk of STDs.” Phillips said she tries to assess what students already know when they come into her health class as freshmen.
“These kids are pretty advanced, but in terms of sexuality, that’s obviously going to kind of depend on what’s being discussed at home,” Phillips said. “I would say that a baseline knowledge is probably that of any other kid that’s exposed to media today. They don’t really understand how contraception works.”
Phillips said she generally finds that students have discussed little with their parents about sex, and that the message tends to be different for male and female students.
“With my juniors and seniors, before starting class, I asked them, ‘At what age did your parents talk to you about sex?’” Phillips said. “The majority of girls said they never did. The majority of boys said that if they did, it wasn’t necessarily about having sex, it was about using condoms.”
Phillips also helps facilitate an extra-curricular club called Sexual Health Awareness Group (SHAG), which meets on Thursdays during lunch hour. Anna Gooler, 16, said participating in SHAG has been the most influential part of sex education for her.
“That’s where I think I’m able to really get interested, because I see other people’s opinions and we have really great discussions about everything,” Gooler said. “This past week we talked about something called the ‘Power Wheel,’ so that’s divided into things like intimidation, possessiveness, domination, different things … that are considered forms of trying to control the relationship. So, we talked about examples of those and what to do in that situation where you have a partner who’s being possessive or intimidating or whatever.”
Phillips said she tries not to give answers as much as let students interact with each other during SHAG meetings.
“They really enjoy talking about gender stereotypes,” Phillips said. “There was an activity on the board where, as a group, they distinguished, ‘Okay, what does society tell us in terms of ‘This is what a woman looks like,’ ‘This is what a man looks like,’ and what happens if a man has some of these characteristics like a female? What happens if a female has any of these characteristics like a male?”
Annie Fehrenbacher, a 2006 University High graduate, co-founded SHAG in 2005 to make up for a lack of classroom instruction and to answer peers’ questions. As a member of Teen Awareness Group (TAG), a Planned Parenthood program which works to educate peers about sexual issues, she worked with former health teacher DeDe Wright to prepare a yearlong curriculum.
“Mainly students were interested in birth control methods and then more on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) issues, because that wasn’t something that was touched on at all in our course,” Fehrenbacher said.
Alexx Engles, a 16-year-old senior, currently works with Phillips as the student leader of SHAG. Like Fehrenbacher, she went through five weeks of summer training to become a member of TAG, which meets twice a week to review sexual health information.
“This year, I’ve been trying to get the club to focus a little more on violence, like sexual assault,” Engles said. She is also involved with the Greater Community AIDS Project, which helps to house and care for AIDS sufferers in Champaign-Urbana.
Phillips said she could only presume that some University High students are sexually active, based on the kinds of questions they ask about contraception.
“I hear young girls talking about the conflicts of having that natural desire of becoming sexually active, but also dealing with this reality of ‘I know I’m not necessarily ready for it. I know that I shouldn’t. I know I’m still scared of it, so maybe I shouldn’t,’” Phillips said. “So I hear those kinds of things, this pre-contemplation stage of ‘Am I ready for something like this or not?’ So I think it’s maybe more curiosity.”
Kovacs said it would be “dumb to say” that students aren’t having sex, but that she didn’t know how far it was going.
“What I would guess, from what I’m hearing sitting at my desk, hearing kids sitting around here talking, is that there’s what we used to call in my days ‘playing around,’ but there is very little penetration,” Kovacs said.
Kovacs also said she couldn’t recall an instance of teenage pregnancy at the high school in her eight years there.
However, students said they were aware of sexual activity at their school.
“I think it’s probably more common than people realize,” said Isaac Chambers, a 17-year-old senior. “I think it’s probably less common than at a regular public school, just because it’s kind of an isolated environment.”
Gooler said that many University High students have a liberal viewpoint, which tends to influence their sexual behavior.
“I think at Uni, students are more educated about it, so they know how to use contraception, so I do think sex goes on outside of school, definitely,” Gooler said. “We had a dance on Thursday night, and SHAG held a booth there, and at the end we handed out condoms and little pamphlets that show how to use them. I think that’s really helped.”
Engles said she stays away from watching television and other media because they are negative influences.
“I see how it affects other people, and I try to stay away from mainstream media for that same reason,” Engles said. “I know that if I were to take in mainstream culture on a regular basis I would have a much different view on sex, even though I might not consciously be aware of that view.”
Phillips said that she wanted her students to be able to think through the consequences of sexual activity.
“I want them to know that it’s okay to ask questions about it,” Phillips said. “I’ve had students stop by my classroom and ask me ‘I saw something on TV. Is that true? Does that really happen?’ And I’ll address it, because they’re getting bombarded with a lot of mixed messages.”