Six Utah residents disclose their trials, fears and torment caused by Utah sex education programs and the conservative culture surrounding them.
Taylor’s parents are out of town when Tim asks if he can come over to watch a movie. Taylor is oblivious and thinks that “come over and watch a movie” means coming over and watching a movie—not what would actually happen later that night.
As the television screen illuminates the images of “Kill Bill,” Taylor sets herself two feet away from Tim on her patterned couch. At this point, they don’t have a relationship status. They are sort-of dating, sort-of not. They had gone to third base, but nothing further than that. Taylor would later find out that Tim had a pregnant girlfriend during the entire time they knew each other.
After Tim swaps the DVDs and the Tarantino sequel begins, he places himself right next to Taylor. She can feel his warmth then. Fifteen minutes before the movie ends, Tim reaches for her face and they begin to kiss deeply. Before Taylor realizes what she is doing, she grabs his hand and takes him downstairs to her room. She thinks that it would be disrespectful to do anything on her parents’ couch.
As Tim begins to pull at her clothes, thoughts of panic race through Taylor’s brain. Her pulse quickens from excitement and utter terror. She had been raised not to have sex before marriage, and she and Tim weren’t even exclusive. Yet, she feels too pressured to say anything. After all, it was she who brought him down to her bedroom. She recognizes that she can ask him to stop at any time. He knows she’s a virgin.
“Is this really what you want to do?” Tim asks as he pulls out a condom. Taylor isn’t completely sure when she says yes.
Taylor Warner is 21 years old and grew up in Utah County surrounded by influences of her family’s faith—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), a religion that values waiting until marriage to have sex. The LDS church is Utah’s primary religion, with 62.2 percent of Utah residents identifying as Mormon in the 2012 census. In Utah County, where Taylor went to school, that population breaches 80 percent.
Taylor’s first sex education course was in the eighth grade. She said she learned very little.
“I learned how a baby is born and about abstinence—how the best way to prevent an STD or pregnancy or anything going awry with your uterus is to not have sex until you’re married,” she said.
The discussions in class made her terrified of sex.
“I thought that sex was a dirty, gross thing that shouldn’t happen,” she said. “Even if you’re married, it sounded like a taboo thing that you’re not supposed to talk about.”
That was the only sex education course Taylor has taken. In her high school, sex ed wasn’t required. However, she said her mother taught her extensively on some areas that were missed in Taylor’s school’s course. The most valuable information she said she learned was about contraception and resources like Planned Parenthood—topics that are prohibited for discussion in Utah’s and many other states’ schools.
“She’s the one who taught me about condoms and birth control,” Taylor said. “We were in the car driving, and she told me, ‘Just remember, if you ever have sex, make sure he wears a condom.’ And I was very grateful for that. Up until I was 19.”
That was when Taylor first had sex. She said she wasn’t at all prepared, despite her mother’s and school’s efforts.
“I was never told what actually happens,” she said. “It was this completely foreign thing. No one prepared me earlier because they all thought I would wait until I was getting married to talk about it.”
Taylor was traumatized by her first sexual experience, and it took her two years before she felt comfortable having sex again.
“I felt dirty and used,” she said. “Then I realized, I’m not a bad person for doing this. It took me a really long time to do. I wouldn’t go back and do it differently, though. I learned so much about myself and about sex and how to now handle myself in that circumstance.”
Taylor, who wasn’t taught the intricacies of sex (another Utah school policy), said not knowing what happens during sex makes the first experience unenjoyable. She was so worried about what would happen that it ruined the moment for her. She boiled it down to her sex education experience in school.
“It’s such a guilt-driven thing, and that’s not healthy,” she said. “We don’t want teenagers to feel bad about something that is completely normal. Yet, they feel demonized if they do it.”
The “intricacies of sex,” which are prohibited discussions in public school instruction, include topics of sexual stimulation, erotic behavior and the details of penetration, according to the R277-474-3 General Provisions in Utah’s administrative code. The advocacy or encouragement of contraception is also prohibited.
“It’s unrealistic to think that kids are waiting to have sex,” Taylor said. “If kids don’t know about contraception and they get into the situation where they are having sex, what do you think is going to happen? They’re going to get pregnant. By not talking about it, we are creating a larger problem. We aren’t telling them anything, and it isn’t safe.”
. . .
At age 17, Rian’s father demands that she gets birth control. She wants to move out of her parents’ home and live in her car—the only condition is that she gets birth control. Her father commands it or else he will force her to continue living at home. Her boyfriend, Kevin, is also pressuring her to start taking birth control—they hadn’t begun to have sex yet, but they had talked about it.
Rian has never learned anything about birth control, and neither Kevin nor her father would help her with deciding which one to take.
When she arrives at the clinic, it’s the first time she has ever heard about the different kinds of birth control she could use. She has 10 minutes to decide.
She chooses to get a hormonal implant in her arm. She has no idea how effective it is. Shortly after, she begins to have miserable side effects from it—including a six-month-long period. She eventually goes to a different clinic that gives her expired birth control pills to “balance her out.” She has no idea she is putting even more hormones into her body.
Three years later, she still doesn’t have many answers. The only thing she knows is that this “weird lump” in her arm makes it so she can’t get pregnant.
“I didn’t know anything,” she says. “I was given no answers.”
If she hadn’t been pressured to get the implant, she’s sure she wouldn’t have had sex as early as she did. She would have waited until she had done more research and been more educated. Rian believes if she had learned about birth control in school, she would have been more prepared when she was pressured to make a rushed decision.
Rian Kirsch is 21 years old and also grew up in the LDS church. Her first sex education experience happened when she was in seventh grade. She recalled learning about STDs and basic anatomy but nothing about actual intercourse. Abstinence was strongly emphasized.
“I don’t think it was a scare tactic,” she said. “I was already grossed out by naked people, so it was kind of the same.”
In high school, Rian took an adult roles class, which taught her about babies, rape/sexual assault and female anatomy. She also learned the dos and don’ts of sex, which she found biased. From there, she educated herself with the Internet, a place she could freely ask questions. Often, her friends would make sexual comments, jokes or innuendos, and she would look them up later.
During this time, a policy on abstinence-only discussions was tightening its hold on Utah schools.
When the bill for Utah’s abstinence-only education came about, supporters argued that sex education should be left up to parents, according to an article in The Deseret News. However, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert responded by saying, “In order for parents to take on more responsibility, they need more information, more involvement.”
Rian’s parents were ones who were not involved.
“My family didn’t talk about it at all,” she said. “The only time I ever had a conversation with them about it was when my father insisted I get birth control when I moved out.”
Rian began to have sex at 17 years old, which is the average age young adults first have sex, according to Planned Parenthood.
“I had a lot of questions about what sex was and what different kinds of birth control were available,” Rian said. “I didn’t even know anything about condoms. We were just taught abstinence.”
There are 17 different methods of birth control, according to the Centers of Disease Control Prevention, with hundreds of different brands for each method and their own separate side effects.
Rian said sex education courses should focus more on self-worth and empowerment. She wasn’t comfortable with how premarital sex was shown in a negative light and how degrading it was seen to others.
“People are going to be having sex no matter what, so it’s good to make people aware of what to do, like with contraception,” Rian said. “It’s good to encourage marriage, families and commitment, but it’s wrong to shame people who aren’t abstinent.”
. . .
Mark doesn’t like it when he lies to his mother. She’s a worrisome individual, and he loves her. He knows how easily upset and frustrated she can get with his actions—especially since he left the church two years ago. So when she asks him if he’s seeing anyone, he lies.
His father is a smart man, though, and Mark is sure his father knows that he’s not a virgin anymore. He’s a single, 22-year-old male who frequently finds ways to spend time with pretty women. One thing often leads to another, and that’s that. Mark’s dad doesn’t know who Mark has slept with, or when, but he’s smart and can guess as much.
Mark’s mother is always questioning his friendships with women and whether they are intimate ones. She doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but she still makes an effort to ask. It’s seldom that they have these conversations, but they always end with a lie.
Mark Chamberlain had his first sex ed experience in the seventh grade when he was 13. It was primarily an anatomy lesson.
“I learned the different types of body parts, basic bodily functions, diseases and safety,” he said. “We didn’t talk about any emotional aspects. I suppose you learn more about the diseases, traumatic effects and all the bad things that happen instead, like birth and the consequences of sex.”
Mark is 22 years old and grew up in Utah with dominant LDS influences. He is no longer an active member of the church.
“Growing up Mormon, [sex] was deemed holy,” he said. “It was something you didn’t know much about, just that you weren’t supposed to do it until you were married.”
Mark’s parents also educated him about sex when he was young. They discussed stimulation and that it was a great feeling but something he shouldn’t do yet.
Masturbation and sexual favors (oral sex and the like) are also frowned upon actions in the LDS church.
At age 19, Mark became sexually active. His first time was premarital and his middle school sex ed class was the last thing on his mind.
“Anything from life you learn from experience,” he said. “It came pretty naturally. And 98 percent of us teenage boys have watched porn, and we understand the basics.”
Though Mark was exaggerating, he wasn’t that far off. In 2013, The Huffington Post collected data from multiple studies and deduced that 70 percent of men have watched porn. For boys between ages 10 and 17, that number is 40 percent.
“Back then, sex is seen as the super-duper version of making out,” Mark said. “Then you try to get as close to doing it without really doing it.”
. . .
Lacey has trouble breathing in her tight wedding dress as she stands next to her new husband, receiving congratulations from loved ones and strangers. This is the happiest day of her life. The cake looks perfect. The flowers look perfect. She looks perfect. But there is one thing tugging in the back of her mind—her wedding night.
Earlier that day, she received jokes and teasing from her friends. “You’re going to have a fun night… You’re going to have a REAL good time… Don’t go making honeymoon babies, now.”
She laughs along with her friends, hiding her actual worry. No one will talk to her about what will actually happen to her tonight. She’s nervous as she stands next to her safely-clothed husband. She wishes someone would have sat her down and had a serious conversation with her, someone like her mom. Lacey gets frustrated at the thought. “It’s her job, isn’t it?”
Lacey Miles waited until her wedding night to first have sex, due to her LDS faith. She 100 percent agrees with having abstinence-only sex education in schools.
“People that have sex before marriage often get pregnant, and then they have to get married, and then the baby has a horrible life,” she said.
There are few disadvantages to abstinence, according to Planned Parenthood’s website. However, when people end their period of abstinence, they may not be prepared to protect themselves against pregnancy or infection.
Lacey said that she couldn’t understand what sex really was because of the law prohibiting discussion about the intricacies of sex. She said she also doesn’t understand why contraception can’t be talked about, seeing how, in her opinion, it can help a lot of people.
Lacey’s parents refused to talk about sex. Prior to her first sexual encounter, most of her knowledge came from her boyfriend (now husband, who had sex before their relationship began). Because of this, Lacey said she felt prepared enough when they first had sex. However, she said she was still incredibly nervous and unsure when the moment came.
Planned Parenthood’s website states that abstinence is the best form of birth control. The bigger issue is when that abstinence stops and people are unaware of how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and STDs.
. . .
Kyler is the first of his friends to come out as gay in high school. He goes to a high school of only 300 students and is well-known among his peers. After he came out, it seemed as if everyone else started to come out.
Shortly after his announcement, he talks to his friend about what it’s like having sex with another boy.
“I’m just glad that I don’t have to use a condom,” one friend says.
“Why?” Kyler asks, completely shocked by this statement.
“Because I don’t have to worry about my partner getting pregnant.”
Kyler Salazar is 19 and grew up in Salt Lake County without influences of the LDS faith in his family. He said he is grateful for how open his family was and the education he received from sexual discussions they had.
In his high school sex ed classes, he said he wasn’t taught much.
“We talked about how you should be abstinent until marriage, that sex is bad and that condoms don’t work,” he said. “Rather than not teaching about how to have sex, they should teach how to have sex safely. People aren’t being educated about how anything works.”
Young gay and bisexual men (aged 13–24) accounted for an estimated 19 percent of all new HIV infections in the US in 2010, according to the CDC.
“[Gay men] that I went to school with thought that since they weren’t having sex with a woman that they didn’t need to wear condoms,” Kyler said. “But you need to use them to protect from STDs.”
Another Utah sex education regulation prohibits the discussion of homosexuality in school—even if a student asks a teacher directly about it. In Utah, gay and lesbian couples head one in every 150 households—an increase of 73 percent in the last decade, according to the 2010 census.
“We need to stop hiding that homosexuality is a thing—especially since it’s legal to be married now,” Kyler said. “Everyone should be allowed to learn how to have safe sex.”
. . .
Leah is sitting at her computer on a warm, summer evening when she gets a ping from her email. It’s her first ever hate mail.
It was sent to the address for her student-organization club, Students for Choice, but it has her name in it. Words such as “baby killer” and “murderer” flash on the screen.
She feels baffled. She can’t comprehend how someone thought it was a good idea to spend her Saturday night sending hate mail to an 18-year-old who volunteers at Planned Parenthood.
Leah isn’t surprised at how easy it was for someone to find her email. A short Google search will bring up a dozen articles with her name and personal details in it. Tying herself to Planned Parenthood and publicly stating she’s lesbian puts her at risk. It puts her girlfriend at risk.
She knows all it takes is one extremist. She’s knows how easily she could be targeted and found. But she also knows that’s the reality of this job. So she clicks away from her email and gets back to work.
Leah Weisgal grew up in New York City, a stark contrast to her new home in Utah. She went to a magnet school, which started teaching its students the fundamentals of sexuality in fourth grade. From the time Leah was in elementary school, she knew the basics of sex because it was a common topic for children her age to know about. Her one complaint was the lack of discussion around gender identities and different sexualities.
New York requires that all sex education be medically accurate, a policy only 18 other states share, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. With that, only 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education at all.
“Teaching abstinence-only classes is also equating worth with sexual purity,” Leah said. “It’s attacking identities and who people are. As a gay woman, it’s offensive to me that your worth is determined by heteronormative sexual abstinence and heteronormative marriage.”
Leah joined Planned Parenthood as an intern in the public affairs team. On August 25, 2015, she led a rally at the Utah State Capitol, protesting Gov. Herbert defunding Planned Parenthood. The rally drew in over 4,000 people, making it the largest rally in Utah Capitol history.
Planned Parenthood is a three-pronged organization: health care, policy work and education. The education prong focuses on diverse topics from birth control to sexual orientation to body image and STDs.
“Planned Parenthood is proud of its vital role in providing young people with honest sexuality and relation information in classrooms and online to help reduce our nation’s alarmingly high rates of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections,” according Planned Parenthood’s website. “Planned Parenthood affiliates provide educational programs and outreach to 1.5 million young people and adults every year.”
Leah is actively involved in initiating programs at her college that include providing sex education basics for incoming first-year students. Leah said that many attendees are fresh out of high school, where they received little to no sex education.
Because of this lack of knowledge, thousands of young people find themselves in situations where they don’t know how to handle unwanted sexual advances, how to choose what birth control to take or how to use it, how to be educated about different sexualities, or how to face being shamed for having premarital sex.
“It’s so important to have these conversations—the stigma is literally killing us,” Leah said. “The absence of information is not education.”