The Phan sisters created Fort Bend Students United for Reproductive Freedom (SURF), an organization that advocates for comprehensive sex ed.
The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.
By the time she turned 17, the average age Americans lose their virginity, Ann Phan’s entire knowledge of sexual education could be summed up in two words: abstinence only. She didn’t feel like her Texas schooling provided her with enough information to make informed decisions about her body. What birth control should she use? What reproductive rights did she have? She didn’t know.
Disgruntled by the lack of proper sex ed they received in school, Phan and her 15-year-old sister, Tammy, made it their mission to find out why the program was so rudimentary. They discovered Texas sex ed hadn’t been updated by the state in more than two decades, recognizing neither scientific advancements nor the realities of being a teen in the 21st century.
In early 2020, when abortion gag rules began to arise in national courts, the Phan sisters, inspired by their own struggles in reproductive health, created Fort Bend Students United for Reproductive Freedom (SURF), a youth-led organization that facilitates civic engagement and sex ed in schools.
“We wanted to make sure voices in our community were heard, to ‘teach the truth’ in a way that is age-appropriate and understandable,” Ann said.
Last November, SURF teamed up with state-wide advocacy group, Jane’s Due Process, to protest for comprehensive sex ed using the gaming platform, “Minecraft.”
Designed and led by youth, the event was held through a virtual “Minecraft” simulation of the Texas Capitol building in Austin, where students joined a shared game domain and joint Zoom meeting to read testimonies and demand revisions to their sex ed curriculum. Banners shouting “#SexEdForAll” and “Teach the Truth” adorned the virtual building as representatives from organizations across Texas spoke to an audience of over 800 on Facebook Live.
“We organized the protest because there were some points we felt weren’t communicated with the State Board of Education earlier this year,” Tammy said. “We wanted them to listen to us in a safe and accessible, yet impactful way.”
After the Minecraft protest, SURF promoted further revisions clarifying medical concepts and encouraging respect for all students regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. As a result of SURF’s creative advocacy work, this December the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) passed comprehensive sex ed in middle school—including a medically-accurate curriculum and alternatives to abstinence-only instruction.
“Unfortunately, youth can’t make informed decisions about their bodies because of the dangerous lack of sex ed they receive in school,” Eleanor Grano, program manager for Jane’s Due Process and former advocate at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said. “Many teens are forced to attain their knowledge of sex ed from disreputable sources, which is a major backstep responsible for harmful myths.”
Research published by the Journal of Adolescent Health demonstrates that when sex ed is comprehensive, teenagers feel informed, make healthier choices, and have more positive outcomes. This has been shown to result in fewer unplanned pregnancies and increased protection against STDs/STIs.
With this win under their belts, SURF is branching into textbook selection. They are working with educators to handpick accurate and relatable text and advocating for the abolition of luxury taxes on menstrual products in Texas legislature.
“It means a lot to me and Tammy to be able to educate our peers, and it makes us a lot more excited for the future of sex ed as something that actively includes student activists who are diverse and break traditional boundaries.” Ann said.
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