Dr. Jill McCracken, Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Florida, is the founder of the Adolescent Sexual Health Education and Research (ASHER) Program and has launched “Choosing Myself,” a sexual health education program for females currently or previously in foster care.
Female teens in foster care are often moved from home to home, decreasing opportunities to form healthy, stable relationships with those around them. This lack of stability combined with no access to comprehensive sex education can make these young women more vulnerable to sexual violence, violent behaviors, unintended pregnancies, sexually-transmitted infections, and human trafficking.
Cycles of abuse are often transgenerational: neglect, verbal abuse, and physical violence can become part of the child’s self-image, and risk factors for entry into the criminal legal system include poverty, lack of economic opportunity, family dynamics, a lack of access to education, healthcare, and access to social services. Compounding these cycles of abuse, foster youth are even more disproportionately at risk for exploitation in the sex industry.
The health curricula in Florida schools is largely focused on abstinence and prevention. The 2017 Florida Statute 1003.42 (2)(n), with regard to public school health education, requires that all schools implement comprehensive health education programs with significant focus paid to “the benefits of sexual abstinence as the expected standard.” In the state of Florida, 15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 12, with 29% between the ages of 12 and 17 years old (FCASV.org, 2016).
Sexual education in Florida law focuses on abstinence and prevention, however, Florida law fails to consider that comprehensive sex education builds a foundation for children that can strengthen their voice and autonomy and aids in abuse prevention (FCASV.org, 2016). Sexual education for children should include information regarding health risks and making responsible choices, but also education surrounding risk of sexual exploitation and abuse and how to identify and protect themselves when inappropriate sexual situations occur.
The “Choosing Myself” program offers eligible girls and young women the opportunity to gain knowledge about their bodies, boundaries, values, and goals. Through various activities, games, self-reflection, and art projects, themes such as anatomy, safe sex practices, and empowerment will be explored.
The goal is to enhance understanding of sexuality to improve decision-making about having sex and self-care. This program measures the impact of a sexual risk reduction intervention on the following:
- An individual’s self-esteem and empowerment
- Behaviors and experience with sexual activities
- Vulnerability to and experiences of sexual violence
- Tendencies to or experiences of perpetuating sexual violence
Focus groups and interviews are used to better understand the current issues surrounding sexuality, risk, and sexual violence these young women face as well as to gauge the outcomes and benefits of and suggested improvements to the curriculum. All group sessions take place in a safe, comfortable, and judgement-free zone. Any girls or young woman (cis and trans) ages 13-24 who have been in foster care, a group home, or in the Guardian Ad Litem program are eligible to participate throughout the state of Florida.
“Choosing Myself” consists of six two-hour sessions, with one meeting per week. Registration is ongoing, there is no cost to participate, and participants receive $10 per session they attend. Due to COVID-19, all sessions will take place in an online, small-group format. To join, register here.
The Adolescent Sexual Health Education and Research (ASHER) Project provides comprehensive and gender-inclusive sexual health education for youth who are marginalized and/or in high-risk situations. Through education and empowerment, ASHER places an individual’s autonomy, choice, and values at the center to advance gender equity and prevent sexual violence and trafficking.