What Sex Education Looks Like in Iowa in 2023

Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

A lot of attention has been given to what Iowa students learn in school this year. While that attention has mostly focused on restricting and banning what can be taught, there are people who say accurate, truthful information is more important than ever.

For more than 15 years, Amanda Swan, a community health educator for Planned Parenthood, has taught sexual education in schools in Southeast Iowa.

Swan said for the most part, her lessons boil down to teaching students communication skills, how to have healthy relationships and helping them realize talking about sex doesn’t have to be intimidating.

“Giving them the tools to actually communicate around these topics I think is vital in helping them to make the best decisions,” she said.

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How sex education is taught

“I always list abstinence as being the 100% safest choice,” Swan continued. “I do a lot of negotiation skills, communication skills, ways to say no. I teach them delay tactics and alternative actions that can kind of help them get out of a sticky situation if maybe they don’t exactly know what to say to a partner that’s pressuring them.”

Swan talks about the risk of teen pregnancy and how having a baby as a teenager can change their lives, such as making it harder to attend class, play sports, or be involved.

Swan said she always emphasizes the importance of protection if the students—who are usually eighth grade and older—do decide to be sexually active. This is especially because a lot of them think sexually transmitted infections can’t happen to them.

“I think it’s really important that they are made aware that, unfortunately, it is very common. It’s not the end of the world, but knowing about it is going to be helpful,” Swan said.

Following the law

For the curriculum, Swan said she pulls from a few sources approved by the Iowa Department of Education such as Family Life and Sexual Health (FLASH), Rights, Respect, Responsibility (3R’s) and Safer Choices.

Before classes start, a letter is sent home to parents with a basic outline of what will be covered, and state law allows parents to opt their children out. Swan said usually only a handful out of a whole class opt out, and she’s never had any backlash in all the years she’s done the job.

In Iowa, while sex ed is required, the law doesn’t require sex ed to be comprehensive or teach about consent. It also allows abstinence-only education as long as it meets other parameters. Education also varies from district to district because each school board decides their own sex ed policies.

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ yet-to-be-signed education bill prohibits teaching about gender identity, sexual orientation, AIDS and HPV.

Not ‘how-to,’ but prevention

Early on, Swan said she tells students she’s there to answer their questions, and she provides an anonymous question box for anyone to use. If she has multiple sections of the same grade, Swan takes the box with her to every class so they can all hear the questions.

But she said it doesn’t take long for the students to ditch the box.

“Usually by the second or third class, they’re totally comfortable with me, and not many students even take advantage of that anonymous question box,” she said. “They are just asking them right in class.”

Because the classes are about education, Swan said she also shuts down any attempts to get graphic.

“I always remind them this is not a how-to class, this is a prevention class,” she said. “So, yeah, I kind of stopped that in its tracks.”

Otherwise, she answers questions in a medically accurate, approachable way.

Education before pregnancy is key

Several lessons, like teaching students about the effectiveness of birth control, involve examples like dice rolls, to emphasize how easily pregnancy can occur if a couple is having unprotected sex.

Swan said most of her questions are some form of, “can you get pregnant if ___?” or clearing up myths. Swan often encourages students to have further conversations with a trusted adult, and she has activities about how to talk to a parent about sex and reminds students their parents want them to be safe and healthy.

As for the timing of the education, Swan said eighth grade is sometimes too late. In some school districts, she said she’s seen pregnant eighth- and ninth-graders.

“Some studies have shown that giving young people comprehensive, evidence-based sex ed actually has been shown to delay their sexual activity,” she said.

“That communication aspect, and being able to talk about it and state their boundaries, helps them wait until they’re actually ready as opposed to being pressured into it by a partner,” Swan continued. “Or maybe they don’t know exactly what to say to speak up for themselves.

“It just really is so much more helpful overall for their decision making around sexual activity and their overall health,” she added.


Nikoel Hytrek

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