In Nebraska, state lawmakers are considering updating the public school system’s sexual education standards so that each school district’s health classes will be required to meet comprehensive, medically accurate standards. As legislators debated the measure this week, one Nebraska resident testified in favor of the sex ed bill by citing her own personal story: since she doesn’t believe she was fully educated about the HIV virus, she wants to prevent other students in her state from making the same mistakes she did.
Janine Brignola urged lawmakers to ensure that Nebraska’s youth don’t grow up to be as “naive” as she was about sexually transmitted infections:
Janine Brignola grew up in a rural area near Ord, Neb., but graduated from high school in Lincoln.
Not once, said the 30-year-old who is HIV-positive, was she warned of the dangers of the virus that causes AIDS at the schools she attended.
Her peers, Brignola said, told her it was a “dirty disease” that could kill her, but she believed that only the sexually promiscuous or “junkies or prostitutes got HIV.”
“I was naive and thought Nebraska was not a place that it could happen,” she said.
That lack of information about HIV isn’t specific to Nebraska. In fact, CDC data shows that HIV infections throughout the country are most concentrated in regions where students don’t learn about the virus in school. Just 20 states mandate both sex education and HIV education, and even those states may not necessarily require health classes to adhere to basic standards to ensure scientific accuracy.
But, just as Brignola highlighted in her testimony, it’s crucial to educate adolescents about effective methods to prevent HIV — rather than feeding them shame-based messages about sexual promiscuity, as if sexual health somehow doesn’t exist outside of “junkies and prostitutes.” Public schools started teaching information about sexually transmitted infections in the 1980s, at the height of the national HIV/AIDS epidemic, but religious conservatives rolled back much of that progress under former President George W. Bush, when sex ed classes became replaced with abstinence-only programs in states across the country.
Now, the CDC worries that today’s young people aren’t getting the message on HIV. Young Americans continue to put themselves at risk for the virus, and half of HIV-positive individuals between the ages of 13 and 24 aren’t even aware they have it.