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Supporting Sexual Health Care in Kansas Starts with Education

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September 7, 2017

Last week, I attended the Protecting Sexual Health in Kansas forum at Kansas State University. Speakers Jennifer Greene, director of the Riley County Health Center, and Micah Kubic, executive director of the Kansas ACLU, discussed the state of sexual health care in the country and in Kansas, specifically Riley County.

Greene called Riley County a “contraceptive desert” as it only has two publicly-funded clinics that offer a range of family planning options. Many of the surrounding counties in the area don’t have a single clinic like that, so the need for contraceptive services are greater there.

Looking at the entire state, Greene said that in 2010, 45 percent of pregnancies in Kansas were in unintended. In Riley County alone, 9,190 women (aged 13-44) are in need of publicly-funded sexual health services.

I think that the lack of sexual education coupled with the scarcity of affordable family planning services is a situation that limits reproductive health choices for all Kansans.

When I think about sexual health in Kansas, I first realize how often public schools, especially rural schools, fall short on sexual education. Sexual education standards for schools in Kansas are enveloped in the Kansas Model Curricular Standards for Health Education, published and last revised by the Kansas State Department of Education in 2007. The guidelines for middle school children are decently defined, mostly revolved around sexual anatomy and knowledge of STIs.

The goals set for high school students are fairly broad and nonspecific in regards to sexual health. Many standards that are related to “family life and sexuality” highly associate risk with the content: “demonstrate a broad-based knowledge of the importance and benefits of abstinent behavior and risk-reducing strategies in the areas of substance use and sexuality” and “demonstrate a broad-based knowledge of positive and negative influences of family and peers on unhealthy behaviors (e.g., alcoholism, anorexia, sexual activity, etc.)” are the most specific student learning outcomes in the standards regarding sexuality.

With these broad and open-ended standards of health education, important information can be left out. The curricular standards specify teaching abstinence as an effective way to reduce sexual and drug-related risks, but no other methods of risk prevention have to be taught; “contraception,” “birth control,” and “condom” are words that don’t exist in the Kansas standards for health education.

This leaves a lot of room for leniency in what has to be taught and what can be overlooked. I’m afraid many students in Kansas, especially those in rural school districts with limited teaching staff, have only received the basic health education needed, graduating without knowledge on how to put on a condom, what a healthy romantic and/or sexual relationship looks like, or where to go to get an abortion or prenatal care.

The lack of sexual education is a problem that should be addressed in Kansas. Another aspect we can improve on is increasing access to health care in rural areas. Lots of small towns, like the one I grew up in, do not have a health clinic of any kind. My family drives at least twenty minutes, sometimes more to visit the optometrist, the dentist, and our general physician. Sexual and reproductive health services are rolled up in this as well.

Transportation and information are key here. Rural Kansans can better access sexual health care services (and other health services, too) if they first know what services are provided at certain health clinics. Clinics and hospitals should be more upfront about what services they provide (especially concerning timely needs like emergency contraception and abortion), both online and in pamphlets.

Furthermore, transportation services within cities and across rural areas can improve access to sexual health care. State grants that fund shuttle buses, for example, can help patients that cannot drive themselves to the doctor’s office.

To me, protecting sexual health in Kansas starts with education. Comprehensive, evidence-based sex education will give young Kansans the base knowledge of reproductive health and sexuality without relating it all under “risk.” Better physical and informational access to sexual health care will help people actually get to the services they need. When these goals are addressed and acted upon, I believe we will see a healthier, better-informed Kansas.

 

Image via Pixabay

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