Alaska has the highest per capita rate of chlamydia infections of any U.S. state. For gonorrhea, the Last Frontier ranks second, behind only Mississippi. Its rates of rape and domestic violence are shockingly high (among the nation's highest). But amid these statistics, there's one item Alaska doesn't have: a mandatory, standards-based sexual education requirement for schools. When it comes to some of the biggest health issues Alaska communities face, the state has handed the reins to local authorities. And it's not working.
Alaska's infection rates for common sexually transmitted diseases have long been woeful. What's more, it's difficult to find a basis to claim matters are improving: The state has led the nation in chlamydia infection rates for almost two decades, and new cases of gonorrhea jumped 51 percent last year. And in June, the state Department of Health and Social Services issued an alert of a syphilis outbreak, as cases reported in 2018 at that point had already surpassed reports for all of 2017.
There's not a clear culprit, and not likely one reason, for Alaska's backward trends of STDs and the epidemic of intimate partner violence that has long plagued the state. Alaskans, particularly young Alaskans, may be more prone to report infections. They may be having sex more frequently, with more partners or having unprotected sex more often. Unlike STD tests, which provide concrete data, surveys of Alaskans' sexual behavior aren't comprehensive and rely on honest reporting about a topic many consider taboo.
Without a full grasp of the drivers of Alaska's STD problem, how can we hope to address it? Even without knowing all the factors at play, more education is vital. In the absence of a mandatory, standards-based state sexual education curriculum, the subject has been left to Alaska's many individual school districts. Sometimes this works well. Sometimes it doesn't work at all.
Teaching sexual education is hard particularly in small, isolated communities. Students are hesitant to ask questions for fear of community stigma, and teachers are sometimes reticent to tackle the topic head-on because of worries about how parents and community members will react or how it will change their relationships with students. Young people's willingness to seek condoms, birth control and information about being sexually responsible can also be hampered by the stigma around the issue.
Even in larger districts that have designed their own curriculums and plans for how sexual education is taught, implementation can be haphazard. Teaching the material often falls to teachers with varying levels of knowledge and interest in communicating the subject, and laws passed by the Legislature have placed restrictions on what material can be used in the classroom. As a result, some students are well educated on how to be safe and healthy in their sexual choices, while others receive little useful information or are given an incomplete picture that can lead to them making poor choices or seeking answers from less reputable sources.
If we are to combat our serious and growing STD problem in Alaska, we must start by making sure those just becoming sexually active are well educated in safe behavior. Students should be informed that abstinence is the only foolproof means of avoiding STDs, but we must also acknowledge that some will engage in sexual activity, and give them the information they need to understand their bodies and how to keep themselves and their partners safe.
The goal of more sexual education isn't to dump information on students or encourage them to be sexually active when they would otherwise abstain from such behavior. On the contrary, a solid sexual education curriculum should give students the tools they need to lead healthy, productive lives. Sexual education teaches practical, essential life skills, much like maintaining a household budget or changing a tire. The better education students have, the more likely they will be to make the right choices.
When the Alaska Legislature reconvenes in January, its members should waste no time in instituting a statewide sexual education curriculum, and they should defer to our national best practices and the state's medical community on what that curriculum should include and who should teach it.
Most of America has figured out effective ways to address this problem. There's no reason Alaska can't do better.