Emma Waitzman ’14, Sex Education Activist in Utah

Waitzman in her room. Photo by Ellen Sanchez.

Every year, the Gazette sits down with a new student at the beginning of the fall semester to talk to them about their pasts, their expectations for Swarthmore, and how it’s been treating them so far. This interview, with Emma Waitzman ’14, was a little heavier on the “past” side. Gazette staffer Ellen Sanchez spoke to Waitzman about her work in sex education in Utah.

DG: How’s your first week going at Swarthmore? Do you like it, do you hate it?

EW: I love it, I’m meeting people who are intelligent and want to learn, and that’s new for me. [laughs]

DG: Can you tell us a bit about your hometown; all the things that you did there? Your work with the sex-education system there, just a brief summary.

EW: I live in Salt Lake City, Utah. Utah is a very conservative state. In our schools we have abstinence only education. And not only is it abstinence only but it’s also really fear based. So, they’ll show you very vivid pictures of STDs.

DG: And pregnancy?

EW: Not pregnancy, but they won’t show you how to prevent STDs. So you just get really scared about it. But the main message that [the administration tries] to get across is abstinence and that it’s a moral thing. The problem is that in Utah, Chlamydia rates are rising at four times that of the national average and gonorrhea rates are rising as well. There are also 12 [new] teen pregnancies a day in Utah.

DG: Yeah, I had read that online during one of your interviews and I was completely shocked, because, at least when I think of teen pregnancy I think of [something in the media] like Juno, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, The Pregnancy Pact, you know, I feel like it’s become something that the media has dealt poorly with. But to most of us that it’s just not attainable but… did you experience it in your high school?

EW: Yeah, I mean you walk down the halls and you see at least one girl a day who’s pregnant. So, clearly we weren’t getting a good education. And so there was a bill that was going to be in the legislature, HB (House Bill) 189, that was going to change one line in the curriculum. The health curriculum says that you can’t advocate for contraception. This creates a lot of confusion; for instance, one of the teachers of my high school wouldn’t say the word condom. She would just say, you know… “that thing that you might put on [as protection],” and wait for another kid to say, “Do you mean a condom?” She could have said the word “condom,” but the wording is so confusing that teachers just don’t understand [how to communicate with their students]. There was one other teacher [who worked in a conservative part of Utah] that passed out a pamphlet that mentioned something about birth control and a month later she was fired…. It’s a really Mormon state, and it’s in their religion to not have sex until you get married, even though all the people I know who have gotten pregnant are LDS [Latter-Day Saints]. Which is not to say that only people who are Mormon who are getting pregnant, but it’s not just the nonreligious that need sex education.

DG: How did you rally a group of your peers to act as your support system throughout this process? Was your group made up of mostly your peers from school?

One of the speakers at the capitol said to us, “Teaching somebody sex education is like giving a kid a gun.” And we just said, “Well actually, maybe it would teach them gun safety to use if they ever came across a gun.”

EW: Well, first we set up a Facebook group. Eventually there were more than 800 people who were a part of the Facebook group. The first thing that we did was, we were talking to a legislator…we lobbied at the capital with a group of teens that were part of a government group. One of the legislators said something like, “Teaching somebody sex education is like giving a kid a gun.”

DG: Wow.

EW: Yeah. We just said, “Well actually, maybe it would teach them gun safety to use if they ever came across a gun.” The guy who was the head of the committee that would be looking at the bill, we talked to him and he was just as clueless. We scheduled a meeting with him, and he was basically saying that it’s the kids in Salt Lake City downtown that are having these problems. People in my district don’t really care about this issue.

DG: What district were you going to school in?

EW: The Salt Lake City district. It’s the main, downtown, most diverse school in Utah. His district is Clearfield. So, I went with two other friends, and we passed out a survey at Clearfield and at West High. Fifty kids from each school took it, and the results were almost exactly the same, except more kids in Clearfield were having sex.

DG: So it’s pretty clear that he didn’t understand his district.

EW: Right. He didn’t want to bring it up because people might not re-elect him. We also asked questions like, “Does the birth control pill protect against STDs?” and “Are condoms 100% effective?” It just showed how little kids knew about this stuff. We also asked if their parents had talked to them about this.

DG: Have your parents talked to you about this? How did you decide to get involved with it?

EW: I think my parents are just, and my grandma too….I just learned to be an activist in my community.

DG: A Swattie.

EW: (laughs) After I went to the capital, I really wanted to get involved, because it was ridiculous, the legislators didn’t have a clue. We wanted to bringing more awareness to these important issues. We brought baby dolls to school that had little facts taped on their clothes,

DG: Did you even do the traditional “here’s a thing of flour, find a mate and take care of it” in your school?

EW: No. I didn’t even end up taking health in high school, because we had the junior high in the high school and the health I got in junior high was so worthless. We saw a video where the two people getting married give each other their tennis shoes, and the man’s shoes are brand new and the girl’s are used and kind of dirty. He says, “It looks like you let the whole football team run in these!” And she goes, “I made them all wear socks!” In the end, they don’t get married.

DG: That’s so deragotory towards females…was it the same towards males?

EW: No, it was just that one clip. I basically said to us that women are impure and sluts if they have sex before marriage, and men aren’t. It was a very strange video.


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