As the country engages in conversations around sex, consent, and masculinity, The Second Greatest Show on Earth investigates questions about sex education in New Hampshire.
Content warning: This article and podcast contain explicit language and acknowledgment of sex and sexuality.
You can listen to the second episode of our series on sex education in New Hampshire here. You can also subscribe to the Second Greatest Show on Earth on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple podcasts, Google Play, or on any podcast app.
About the series
For this series, The Second Greatest Show on Earth spoke to students, parents, educators, school board members, superintendents, advocates, and people on the street in Concord.
Some people had learned about topics like puberty and birth control in school. Others had gotten the message that one person summed up as, “don’t have sex or you’ll die.”
Several people expressed that for them growing up there was basically “no such thing as sex ed.”
Many wished they had learned more about a variety of topics, including relationships, consent and intimacy, diversity of sexual orientation, navigating emotional and physical boundaries, and the influence of pornography, especially on teenagers, and many were curious about themes summed up by Stephen Kidder in Concord:
“Is there curriculum that is state-wide, or is sex ed.... school-to-school, district-to-district?”
In 2017, New Hampshire introduced an opt-out law which allows parents to withdraw their children from certain lessons.
If a school does go further, the sex ed curriculum can vary widely from district to district.
*Note: While the terms “sexually transmitted infection” (STI) and “sexually transmitted disease” (STD) are often used interchangeably, we followed the American Sexual Health Association’s suggestion of using STI since not all infections result in a “disease.”
“I would just ask if it’s still an abstinence-based education, and also are they having conversations around sexuality and gender identity?”
- Kate Hoadley
Sex education can mean a variety of approaches.
Comprehensive sex education is an approach defined by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as “medically accurate, evidence-based, and age-appropriate.” Comprehensive sex ed teaches many methods of birth control, including delaying sex.
Abstinence-only sex education, an approach that presents only one option of birth control: no sex before marriage.
Again, New Hampshire school districts have a lot of control over their curricula. It’s been a full decade since the state received funding specifically for abstinence-only education, and that money was spent on a program called “Why Am I Tempted,” or WAIT.
But it’s difficult to verify if and where abstinence-only education is still being taught.
Donahue no longer runs WAIT trainings, although she still teaches abstinence education on her own.
WAIT training has a new name, “REAL Essentials,” and it is run by the Center for Relationship Education (CRE). Like many organizations, CRE does not call its training abstinence education, but has rebranded under a new term: Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA).
“The sexual health component in our work is so tiny, and in fact, in some schools, we even take it out because they don’t even want to teach sexual health,” said Joneen Mackenzie, president of CRE. “They don’t want the controversy.”
While Mackenzie says that REAL Essentials is not abstinence education, critics argue that this approach is really just abstinence education in disguise. Not talking about sex or witholding information from teens, some argue, is not education, but an absence of education. Mackenzie disagrees, and calls the binary between comprehensive sex ed and abstinence “unfair.”
“The soundbite that you can quote me on is: we cannot normalize teen sex... it’s not healthy for them. Forget that it's not moral or immoral… that’s not an issue. From a nursing perspective, from a public health perspective, if they’re involved in teen sex, they’re also involved in high risk behaviors,” said Mackenzie.
Two pools of federal money are available for states interested in alternatives to comprehensive sex education: one is earmarked for abstinence-only, the other for SRA education. The New Hampshire Department of Education says it hasn’t taken money from either pool.
But even without federal funding in New Hampshire, business is still booming for Joneen Mackenzie. Today, her SRA education program is in 47 states, including New Hampshire.
Experts from the American Health Association and the U.S. Institute of Medicine have testified before Congress that abstinence education does not reduce teen pregnancies or STIs. The CDC’s thirty-year meta-analysis found an increase in teen pregnancies among those educated with abstinence-only programs.
Studies have shown that that comprehensive sex education reduces the rate of sexual activity in teens, STIs, and teen pregnancy. New Hampshire has one of the lowest teen birth rates in the nation, but according to a 2017 state survey, almost 40% of high school students in New Hampshire report having had sex and 30% report they are currently active.
Comprehensive sex ed, abstinence-only, and now SRA education have long been political. Funding ebbs and flows depending on which political party is writing the budget - Democrats are generally in favor of comprehensive sex ed; Republicans, generally opposed. The Trump administration cut $214 million in federal funds for teen pregnancy programs.
Since 1981, the US has spent over $2.2 billion on abstinence-only education. And last year, the Trump administration budgeted an additional $110 million, doubling the total budget from the last years of the Obama era.
What about sex education outside of school?
- Anna Ruef
Stefanie Marsh, coordinator of the NH Homeschooling Coalition, explained that homeschooling families have a lot of options in terms of what exactly to teach their kids, but usually their curriculum comes down to what most aligns with their values.
“We’re supposed to give the children health education and depending on the family, I suppose, they’re going to give them a slightly different viewpoint or background,” said Marsh.
For instance, Samantha Searles and her sisters were homeschooled all the way through high school. Her family joined a co-op, a small homeschooling group, with a Christian-based curriculum that included a unit on sex education.
[Full disclosure: Samantha Searles interned with New Hampshire Public Radio in 2019.]
“We came up to the chapter on sex ed and the teacher told us to go home and read it one week… we came in the next Tuesday and she was like, ‘Okay, I’m guessing you all had time to read that. Now we’re going to go on to Chapter 10,’” Searles recalled.
“And I’m like, ‘You’re not gonna talk about Chapter 9 at all?’ Okay, so, we can talk about the consequences of smoking and drugs and whatever... but no STDs, no ‘how to have a healthy relationship,’ no... nothing?! Just... silence.”
Do New Hampshire schools include the LGBTQ community in sex education?
- Tor Bjork and Emma Buntrock-Muller
New Hampshire does not have any state laws around the inclusion of sexual orientation or gender identity in sex education, but there are a few states that do. Oregon and California have laws that make inclusive sex ed mandatory in every district.
In other states, laws explicitly rule out inclusive sex ed. At least seven states, mostly in the South, have sex ed laws that say LGBTQ topics cannot be presented in a positive light; some even say a part of the curriculum must be dedicated to condemning homosexuality.
Last year, Plymouth High School students Cade Earick and Sam D’Agostino participated in the YMCA Youth & Government program, a mock government day in which student legislators take over the Statehouse in Concord. Earick and D’Agostino wrote a bill that mandated “inclusive sex education” -- that is, sex ed that covers different sexual orientations and genders.
They filed the bill partly because they’d felt disappointed by the sex ed unit of their wellness class.
“They didn't include the LGBT community at all,” said Earick, who identifies as pansexual. “There was no talk about gender orientation, sexual identity, nothing… it was very much male-female based.”
They won “Best Bill” because of the interest and discussion it sparked among the students. Earick hopes to introduce the bill into the actual state legislature and adapt it for the local level for the school board to consider.
The New Hampshire Department of Education does not collect data on sex education curricula statewide, so it is challenging to verify how many schools in the state address inclusive sex ed. Federal data, collected by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for its 2018 School Health Profile, says around three quarters of NH schools have some form of inclusive sex education at school.
This did not align with our reporting for this episode. Although the CDC report did survey more schools, our more qualitative approach of speaking with educators, students, LGBTQ community leaders, and activists suggested that many teenagers are not receiving inclusive sex education.
“I think their research strategy is to collect large quantities of data, but the quality is very questionable,” said Dr. Rhoades, speaking about the CDC results. He conducted similar surveys on a smaller scale while working as a school consultant for many years.
The CDC survey is self-reported by principals and lead health teachers, and Rhoades explained that the questions can leave room for interpretation. For instance, one yes-or-no question asked: ‘Did you teach sexual orientation in a required course’ sometime in high school?
“Well, that might mean I talk about it once or it comes up in class sometimes, or it could mean I spend three days on it and I give a test on it… and I have a lesson plan. Those are two very different things. But the answer to the same question could be ‘yes,’” said Rhoades.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a non-profit working to end LGBTQ discrimination in schools, takes a different approach to data collection. The organization surveys students instead of educators.
While the CDC says of the NH schools surveyed, 77.9% teach sexual orientation and 73% teach gender roles, gender identity and gender expression. On the other hand, GLSEN says only 12% of LGBTQ students received an inclusive sex education in New Hamsphire.
A representative from GLSEN stated that the survey does not represent all LGBTQ youth, but just those in school. The representative noted that many queer teens drop out of school because of a hostile school climate.
These negative outcomes for queer teenagers also motivated Plymouth High School student Cade Earick to co-author the mock bill on inclusive sex ed.
“I think that if you're not able to get those resources... it causes a lot of depression. People need to understand that having an outdated system like this can have really negative impacts,” said Earick.
A study from the University of Pittsburgh, the first of its kind, analyzed the connection between inclusive sex ed and mental health. It found that the schools that have more positive climates – which the report says includes lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts – are also the schools with inclusive sex ed curriculums.
When sex ed in school isn’t an option for queer teens, where do they go?
Teenagers and their advocates pointed to a few special sanctuaries in New Hampshire, such as the Teatotaller Cafe in Somersworth. The name, which alludes to a person who never drinks alcohol, is intentional. Owner Emmett Soldadi said that there are not that many sober, queer-friendly spaces, so Teatotaller tries to fill that gap with dry events.
At a recent queer-inclusive sex ed trivia night hosted by Planned Parenthood, high schoolers Mack and Jordan were sitting up front near the stage among a small but vocal and enthusiastic crowd.
“When I came out of the closet… my church was pushed away from me, and that had been my safe space when I was little,” said Mack. “Now this is my safe space to just be who I want to be, and not be judged.... and have fun on drag nights, and wear a suit, and scream… and make friendships that I had never thought would even exist before I came out.”
Mack and Jordan explained that they lacked inclusive sex ed classes at their school and didn’t feel completely comfortable talking with their parents.
“It's really the Internet that kids go to and the first thing they pick up is porn,” said Mack. “And that's not accurate at all. At all…"
“That's why I thought I was asexual for a bit. I was like, I won't do that,” said Jordan. “It's fake sex.”
But eventually, Mack found a relatable resource in fan fiction: stories inspired by a book or a band, but written by fans of the original. It’s also known for sometimes taking on sexual themes.
“It also can be very fake, like porn. But it is also, if you find the right avenue, realistic,” said Mack. “Like, sex is awkward. It's not like in porn… and fan fiction does reflect that sometimes.”
Most young people we spoke to expressed a hunger for the basics.
“Even just acknowledging [gender identity] goes a long way,” said Palana Belken. She is the NH-ACLU’s trans justice organizer and Rochester City Councilor. “You don’t have to go in and detail exactly how it all works out, or what the possibilities of it are, but to know and affirm that some people live a different gender identity that is different than what they were assigned at birth, and it’s okay.”
A gold standard inclusive curriculum has yet to be developed. But Dr. Chuck Rhoades from Portsmouth High School has been developing sex ed curriculums for decades, and in his class, he spends eight whole days on the topics of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“My perspective is: how can you teach about sexuality without addressing one of the most basic aspects... gender and gender identity. I can’t think of anything that’s more basic to being human. Who are you? It’s part of who you are!” he said.
Rhoades recalled teaching a human sexuality course at the University of New Hampshire. Ine on class, he was introducing a theory called the Kinsey Scale, which suggests that sexuality is fluid and human beings can fall somewhere on a spectrum between homosexuality and heterosexuality. One student in his class, Katie, had just come out as a lesbian.
“I turned around and [Katie] was crying,” said Rhoades. “So I said, ‘Katie are you okay?’ And she said ‘I’m crying because if I had known this in high school, it would’ve made my life so much easier. It wouldn’t have been so painful.’”
“Boy, that stuck with me, and still sticks with me. And that’s what I teach. I teach for the Katies.”
The National Suicide Lifeline is free, confidential, and available 24/7. The number is 1-800-273-8255.
Support for LGBTQ youth
Rural Outright in Claremont
Seacoast Outright in Portsmouth
Support for parents, friends, and allies
General sexual health and wellness
The Equality Health Center in Concord
Planned Parenthood statewide
The next episode of our Sex Ed series will be published on February 19. Find it on nhpr.org or subscribe to the Second Greatest Show on Earth on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple podcasts, Google Play, or on any podcast app.