Arkansas education ignores public health crisis for LGBTQ youth


Amelia Southern

shane sparkman (10) reaches their hand out for a symbol of “help” and/or to “lend a hand” for LQBTQ+ equality.

Arkansas education is not doing enough to ensure public health because it is failing to adequately educate youth about issues of sexuality and sexual orientation in particular.

Arkansas has among the highest rates of teen pregnancy, sexual assault, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and many of these issues are results of the state’s flawed and inconsistent sexuality education programs. While Arkansas, along with other states, is frequently failing many of its students and thus the public through ineffective sex ed, perhaps the most underserved are members of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) community.

According to a survey conducted by the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, only 25 of the state’s 262 public school districts responding to the survey (just below ten percent) reported teaching about sexual orientation in 2017. This is symptomatic of broader stigma within Arkansas public schools surrounding LGBTQ issues. Schools are often hesitant to discuss any topics related to sex, and this avoidance of important issues has contributed to the state’s high rates of teen pregnancy, disease, and sexual assault.

The failure of Arkansas sex ed programs to address sexual orientation is particularly dangerous to public health because it contributes to misinformation surrounding human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). According to the Arkansas Department of Health, cases of HIV/AIDS increased by more than 45 percent between 2012 and 2016.

Because, according to the Democrat Gazette, HIV in Arkansas is primarily spread between men who have sex with men (MSM), those living with HIV are often subjected to discrimination, with some arguing that HIV is a punishment for what they feel is immoral behavior. Certain religious organizations promote treating HIV with prayer rather than medication, and advocates for this approach have advanced false information regarding the disease’s causes and safe medical treatments.

HIV attacks the cells that fight infection within the body, and it can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) if untreated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There is no effective cure to HIV, but the disease can be treated and its symptoms minimized using antiretroviral therapy (ART), a treatment introduced in the 1990s following increased visibility and activism surrounding the disease in the 1980s.

HIV can be prevented using protection (e.g., condoms if properly used) during sexual contact, and risk of transmission declines significantly with consistent treatment, according to the CDC. Many of those suffering from HIV do not recognize its symptoms and, importantly, do not pursue testing, which can be accessed through the CDC’s Get Tested program and in a number of clinics in Arkansas, including ARCare, a network of clinics offering affordable health care services to all Arkansans, regardless of insurance.

Despite the work of national and state programs to encourage testing and treatment for STDs, many of those at risk are hesitant to seek help because they fear repercussions within their communities. Due to the societal stigma surrounding sexual activity, especially LGBTQ activity, these topics are often omitted in sex education.

Education about sexual health is not mandated in Arkansas, and the state mandates the emphasis of abstinence in sex ed (“abstinence first”) if it is taught. By prioritizing abstinence over evidence-based information about contraceptives and methods of preventing STDs, Arkansas is ignoring the problem facing its public: not everyone will abstain from sexual activity, and those who don’t aren’t equipped with information to help them navigate sexuality in safe and healthy ways. By failing to teach about sexual orientation and safe sex, this system is failing to prevent occurrences of HIV.

“I participated in a Health Forum sponsored by the Arkansas PTA last winter in Little Rock, where I learned that as a result of abstinence-based “education,” more teens are engaging in unprotected anal and oral sex, believing that they are fulfilling their pledge to not have intercourse before marriage while still satisfying their desire to explore sexuality,” Sexuality educator and Our Whole Lives coordinator, Theresa Parrish said. “They have not been taught how to keep themselves safe while engaging in these activities.”

Our Whole Lives (OWL) is a local organization established in 2008. It’s’ mission is to educate young people about sexuality in a positive environment. Since being created, the organization has helped many within the community understand themselves and encourages them to make better decisions involving their sexual health.

By teaching students means of preventing STDs beyond abstinence, Arkansas could take substantial steps to reduce the rate of HIV/AIDS, which was 12.7 per 100,000 people in 2016, according to the CD — in the top XX percentile.

One approach, Northwestern University’s online Sexual Minority Adolescent Risk Taking (SMART) Project, is designed to inform sexual and gender minority youth using an evidence-based curriculum designed for those at risk of contracting HIV in the future, whether or not they are sexually active at the time when they participate in the program. Mandating that this type of material be included in Arkansas health classes could help youth to understand the risks of sexual activity and ways to be safe, but it is widely absent from the current curriculum.

Also conspicuously missing from material discussed in public schools is any meaningful teaching in sexual orientation identity. With only 25 districts reporting teaching about sexual orientation, Arkansas education is clearly missing an important aspect of sex ed.

Rather than shaming all students who choose to be sexually active, particularly those who are LGBTQ, Arkansas schools should be focused on their job: education. Providing students with accurate, unbiased, respectful, and safe opportunities to learn has been linked by study after study to reduced rates of STDs, unwanted pregnancy, and abuse.

Executing solutions to these problems may require effort, but the first steps are unambiguous and attainable: legislators on the federal, state, and local level must fund confidential clinics and health care providers to prevent and treat STDs, and they must collaborate to pass legislation mandating comprehensive, evidence-based, and non-judgemental sexuality education in public schools.

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