Here in Natick, a group of high schoolers has taken on one of the most divisive issues in our country today: sex education. This group, Youth for Sex Ed, was created to advocate for the Healthy Youth Act, a bill that would require a more inclusive and comprehensive sex ed curriculum in Massachusetts. The group aims to push this bill towards a vote, and, in the process, destigmatize the issues involved and teach their community about activism.
The Healthy Youth Act (S.268/H.544) would require Massachusetts public schools that already teach sex ed to provide “medically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive sexual health education,” according to the Healthy Youth Act Coalition. The bill’s three main components are making sure that sex ed is factual and age-appropriate just like any other school subject; consent-based so that students learn about healthy relationships early enough to stay safe and lower the rate of sexual assault on college campuses; and LGBTQ+-inclusive in order to stop leaving LGBTQ+ youth dangerously uninformed and unsupported about their health and identity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10% of high schoolers in Massachusetts reported in 2019 that they’ve faced sexual assault. The rate is higher amongst lesbian, gay, and bisexual students in Massachusetts, 18.7% of whom say they have been forced to have non-consensual sexual intercourse, and 21.3% of whom say they have experienced sexual violence. The hope is that more comprehensive consent education would help lower these statistics by teaching students how to avoid perpetrating or becoming a victim of sexual violence and unhealthy relationships.
Further, 81% of LGBTQ+ students in Massachusetts reported that they did not learn enough about LGBTQ+ sexual health in schools to stay safe and healthy, according to the Healthy Youth Act Coalition. For LGBTQ+ students, health classes often range from irrelevant to misleading and stigmatizing, leaving them in a dangerous place when it comes to mental and sexual health. They often have to turn to the internet, but the information online is not always correct and does not always explain safe sex. “I don’t know anyone who has been completely satisfied with their health education, and if they were, it’s because they were in a privileged position,” said Hannah Schwichtenberg, the leader of Youth for Sex Ed.
The Healthy Youth Act represents not only the needs and beliefs of students; it reflects parents and other voters as well, as 92% of Massachusetts voters believe that students have a right to learn sexual education in high school, as reported by Progressive Mass. Even so, the bill requires that families be provided with information in multiple languages about their children’s sex education curriculum, and allows them to opt their children out.
The Healthy Youth Act was introduced in 2011 and passed unanimously in the State Senate, but it hasn’t even been voted on in the State House. Youth for Sex Ed is trying to change that.
Students seek change
When Hannah Schwichtenberg (she/they), a rising senior at Natick High School, first learned about the Healthy Youth Act, they knew they needed to get involved. She had always wanted something like the Healthy Youth Act while sitting through health classes that left her and her peers under-informed and under-prepared.
On their Instagram story, Schwichtenberg posted information about the Healthy Youth Act, and asked if anyone would want to help advocate for it. Students from Natick, Wellesley, and Ashland quickly responded, and Youth for Sex Ed was formed. “I’m grateful to have found a community that is genuinely passionate about this issue and wants to contribute to change and see it happen,” Schwichtenberg said.
Youth for Sex Ed was a runner-up in the first annual Erica and Jay Ball IMPACT Award competition, and was awarded funding for its efforts.
The group, which meets weekly, began by submitting testimony to legislators to stress the personal importance of a more comprehensive sex education. They then established a social media presence. Their big project, however, has been planning the Healthy Youth Act Summit, an event to “garner traction for the bill and help mobilize for it because what we’ve found is that support for the bill is really scattered,” as Schwichtenberg explained it.
This free event will be hosted on September 9 from 12–4 p.m. The location is still TBD—finding a venue that can hold enough people and is within their price range has been the group’s biggest challenge—but it will be somewhere in the Boston/Cambridge/Metrowest area that is accessible by public transportation. This community-focused event will begin with a gallery walk of tables where attendees can learn, activists can network, and cosponsors of the bill can meet their constituents. There will then be a speaker section, including a keynote address. The speakers will hopefully include cosponsors of the bill and health educators, who will talk about the bill and its importance. This will be followed by a panel of people with a variety of relevant experiences. For instance, there will be health educators, parents, and students with “a health class horror story, because everyone has one of those,” Schwichtenberg said. Audience members will be able to submit questions for the panel when they RSVP to the event. Finally, there will be a workshopping session where attendees will learn about lobbying and even send personal testimony to their legislators right then.
The summit is, of course, open to ardent supporters of the Healthy Youth Act and of inclusive sex education, but it is also welcoming of people who are unsure of where they stand and people who know nothing at all about the bill or the issue. The event will be centered around the Healthy Youth Act, and its political goal is to get legislators to make the bill a priority so that it can be voted on and passed. It also aims to create conversation around the topic of sex ed, destigmatize the issues involved, and help teach the community more about advocating for the issues that matter to them.