Alaska Cultural Connections: Sex-Ed

As part of our on-going series about Alaska’s cultural connections, we’ve been bringing you stories about how Alaskans, both urban and rural, define and live their lives.  No matter where young people live, learning about sex is a big part of growing up, whether it happens in a healthy way, or a way you’d rather forget. Many young Alaskans feel their first lessons were a little too little and a little too late.

Anne Hillman spoke with youth from both rural and urban Alaska about their experiences with sex ed.

Last summer, Travis Chunak from New Stuyahawk made a short informative film.

 “…Youth are harassing other youth. I know in my village youth are harassing other youth by touching private parts unexpectedly…”

The video was created during a workshop in Anchorage led by RurAL CAP focused on sexual health. During the session, a group of young adults talked about how a lack of knowledge about their bodies and relationships impacted them when they were younger. Anecia Romie from Ekwok says she experienced sexual harassment during middle school but couldn’t identify it at the time.

“I never talked to anyone about it.” “How come?” “Because I didn’t know it at the time. I was in middle school and we didn’t even have a health class until we reached freshman year or something,” Romie said.

Both she and Chunak say*they wished they had learned about puberty, sex, and relationships sooner, so they knew what to expect. They said they didn’t learn as much as they needed in school and they didn’t have any one to talk to.

“You didn’t talk to your friends either?” “No.” “How come?” “Cause it’s like a joke to them, so they can’t really sit down and talk. They think it’s a joke so they just laugh and stuff like that,” Romie said.

Twenty-one-year-old Daniel Andrew III from Kasigluk says when growing up in a Yupik speaking house, he couldn’t talk to his family about it.

“It’s kinda harder cause in our language there’s hardly any words for STDs and HIV and all those other stuff,” Andrew said.

And in the village of 575 people, Andrew didn’t feel comfortable getting more information at the clinic either.

“Some of us are kind of like too scared to go and ask because we’re like related,” Andrew said.

He says the lack of information about sex made building a relationship difficult.

Students at East High in Anchorage, like senior Synclair Butler, say similar things.

“I don’t think middle school and elementary school do a good job of preparing you for it because it’s such a one-sided view of abstinence,” Butler said.

Butler says she learned about the biology of sex and reproduction but never about what relationships are. To remedy that, she enrolled in a new course at East High called Sexuality and Healthy Relationships taught by Gary Snyder.

“In Mr. Snyder’s class he’s not saying yeah, go have sex, here’s what you need. He’s more like I’m not that adult who tells you how to live your life but if you do decide to make those decisions, here’s the precautions you need,” Butler said.

Senior Leah Droege is taking the class along side her boyfriend because they want to be comfortable talking about their relationship together.

“I think it’s important to do in school because even though you can talk to your parents and stuff it’s kind of weird. I mean you’re not going to talk to your parents about you know. And it’s nice to have someone who has experience and has knowledge about it and you can be in a situation where you don’t have to personally ask a question but you can learn about it,” Droege said.

Their teacher, Gary Snyder, says getting his students to talk is key.

“There’s an undercurrent in my lessons of trying to get the students to talk to each other. That’s my goal. Learning to be comfortable talking about these issues. Because if they can talk about them then they are more likely to make good decisions one day with a partner,” Snyder said.

Students requested the course and it was developed over two years with input from a diversity of community viewpoints. It covers everything from the media’s affects on body image to biology to sexual identity. One of the main focuses is on building a healthy relationship.

“What is a healthy relationship. Many students have never seen that modeled and what makes relationships work or not work. It’s always a real eye opener for them to see there’s been some real research into this,” Snyder said.

He says he’s seen his students change during the class and hopes it will be expanded to other schools.

“I’ve taught a lot of math and science, which I love, but in this course – I’ve never had a stronger sense of ‘I’m having an impact on kids lives’ than with this course,” Snyder said.

And his students, including Butler, agree.

“If they want to look for more required classes for people to graduate, this should be one of them. I think it kind of helps students familiarize themselves with themselves and with other students and prepares them for life outside of high school,” Butler said.

Currently the class is only taught at East High in Anchorage and at some of the district’s alternative schools.

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