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Long overdue: A call to action for shame-free sex education

By Natasha Vianna & Christine Soyong Harley

In the last three decades, teen pregnancy prevention has both seen its debut and taken its final bow. Most recently known for being a national public health issue, teen pregnancy seemed to be the one topic nearly every adult in America agreed to label as a negative outcome for young people. Negative messages were developed by organizations within the public health and nonprofit industry. They permeated in ad campaigns and even our favorite movies and television shows., Unconscious bias surrounding the negative impact of teen pregnancy on teen mothers and our kids became a seemingly normal part of conversation in American culture. Even today, many of us think of the phrase, “teen pregnancy” and instantly associate it with “life-ruining” physical, emotional, economic, and social outcomes.  Yet today, a growing alliance of advocates is calling upon the nation to stop shaming young parents and support sex ed for all.

To better understand why we are here today, it’s helpful to look to our country’s recent history of teen pregnancy prevention. In 1996, President Bill Clinton named teen pregnancy as America’s “most serious social problem” to support his harmful welfare reform initiative. Once passed by Congress, Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act included the objective of reducing the number of young single mothers on welfare. This translated into an urgent need to name teen pregnancy and single motherhood as crises solely for the perceived impact on racial minorities and their economic stability. Ultimately, the Welfare Reform Act increased poverty and completely failed, but somehow teen pregnancy prevention and its sexist, classist, and racist origin stuck.

Announced during Clinton’s 1996 State Of The Union speech, a predominantly white adult task force was created to develop public health initiatives and marketing campaigns, using images of young Black and Latinx mothers to galvanize national support and reframe young and single parenthood as, “bad life choices.” This didn’t come out of nowhere. It was Ronald Reagan’s infamous 1976 “welfare queen” speech that set the foundation for the stereotype of the young single Black mother in America. And this became the standard for how young parenthood would be shamed and stigmatized for generations. So, it’s no surprise that 40 years after Reagan’s speech and 20 years after Clinton’s, we saw an emergence of sexist and racist campaigns from leaders of the teen pregnancy prevention movement that were billed as sex education.

This is exactly why seven young mothers of color gathered in 2013 to start a movement, NoTeenShame. NoTeenShame was founded to free young people from a society that worked to solve complex and intersectional issues with a singular focus. Young people deserved better then, and they still deserve better today. If they are being pressured or forced to make specific sexual and reproductive choices that align solely with a dominant culture, that is neither inclusive nor empowering. And it was imperative to NoTeenShame that the field of sex education eradicate language that shames young people who experience pregnancy and/or parenthood. This movement called for a reframe of teen pregnancy: viewing it not as a negative outcome of sex, but simply as an outcome that can be avoided, chosen, or terminated. But in addition to making these major intra-movement shifts, it’s also the responsibility of those of us in the field of sex education to ensure young people have the education, resources, and support they need to thrive.

In 2019, several leading national organizations, including SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change, Advocates for Youth, Answer, Healthy Teen Network, Power to Decide, and Planned Parenthood, finally heeded the call from NoTeenShame and other on-the-ground advocates from across the country. These national organizations rebranded the annual May observance of “Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month” to “Sex Ed For All Month.” Establishing May as Sex Ed for All month also reflects an acknowledgement that sex education is so much more than just preventing pregnancy among heterosexual adolescents. It’s an important effort to re-center the fact that sex education’s primary role is to promote healthy sexual development and skills for navigating healthy relationships throughout all people’s lives. This new observance is an acknowledgement that any sexual health program that neglects to recognize and address the lived experiences of its students–or worse, actively shames them–is failing.

Respecting the lived experiences of youth 

Let’s get it straight – studies prove that quality comprehensive sex education programs DO encourage young people to delay the onset and reduce the frequency of sexual activity, reduce the number of sexual partners, and increase the use of contraceptives. These behaviors can all help lower unplanned adolescent pregnancy rates. There is an important public health benefit to providing medically accurate sex education to teens.

But sex education should not be quick lesson summed up in a 70s-era film in the high school gymnasium, nor should it focus on shame-based teen pregnancy prevention to the exclusion of all other health and social benefits. It should be a sequential, K-12 learning experience that focuses on providing age- and developmentally appropriate skills and information to help young people navigate bodily autonomy, consent, healthy relationships, and to recognize and appreciate the diversity of the human experience. Sex education should give young people the space to explore their own identities and values, to practice important relationship skills, and to learn how to make important reproductive and sexual health decisions for themselves.

There are also much broader social implications for ensuring youth receive accurate and inclusive information on their reproductive and sexual health and how to access related services. Sex education can teach young children to identify their body parts, understand the difference between good and bad touches, and know that it’s okay to report abuse, are given the tools to protect themselves and the language to tell a trusted adult if they experience harm.  Sex education that teaches about healthy relationships, consent, and refusal skills helps lower young people’s risk of experiencing sexual assault while in college.

For LGBTQ youth, inclusive sex education can be lifesaving. Studies have shown that inclusive curriculums, including sex education programs create safer school environments by increasing peer acceptance and decreasing bullying. Inclusive curriculum has the additional benefit of promoting the health and well-being of LGBTQ students. For LGBTQ students, who are disproportionately more likely to drop out of school, experience bullying, mental health issues, and other adverse outcomes, increasing acceptance through inclusive sex education is dire.

For youth of color, sex education provides an opportunity to confront white supremacist stereotypes and to develop culturally responsive programs. From demonizing the sexuality and reproduction of women of color through welfare reform policies and racist “anchor baby” accusations against immigrant women, to the conservative theory of “success sequencing” that is used by sexual risk avoidance advocates to redirect blame for differential experiences of social and economic upward mobility onto youth of color who engage in sexual activity outside of marriage, the U.S. continues to use disgusting racialized sexual stereotypes to promote regressive and harmful public policies. It’s past time for sex educators and the field of sex education to provide curriculum that affirm and humanize the sexual experiences of youth of color – and to properly acknowledge that any disparities in health indicators are a reflection of systemic barriers to accessing care.

The Sex Ed for All movement is an effort to acknowledge that sex education is about the broader social implications of teaching young people to respect themselves, their bodies, the autonomy of their peers, and to be able to decide for themselves if, when, and how to make their own sexual and reproductive health decisions. There are other youth who need sex education programs that recognize their life experiences, including young people living with disabilities and systems-impacted youth, among others. Sex educators are being called to recognize and reflect the lived experiences of young people in their classrooms and programs, at a time when more young people are redefining their own identities for themselves.

The Future of Sex Education

Our world is changing and those who are at the center of experiencing the change should be at the center of defining the solutions. In our current environment, this becomes even more important to recognize as mandatory parts of our healing and progress. What looked “normal” for youth a few months ago is no longer the same. Their educational experiences have drastically changed, in-person social engagement has significantly decreased, and the digitization of relationship-building with peers is rising. So, as we consider what the new normal may look like, we should ask ourselves: How do we innovate education, healthcare, and service delivery *with* youth to meet the current and changing demand? How do we maintain two-way communication *with* youth on their terms and on their preferred channels of communication? And how do we redesign and engage with sexual education *with* youth for a remote world where physical distancing creates new relationship challenges?

Fortunately, thanks to the NoTeenShame movement, the field of sex education at-large is beginning to stand up and take notice of the need to center the needs of young people today. In March, the Future of Sex Ed (FoSE) collaborative released the National Sex Education Standards, updating the guidelines that schools around the country use to develop their sex education programs. The new standards were updated to incorporate an intersectional and trauma-informed lens; infuse principles of reproductive justice, racial justice and social justice; and address social determinants of health. This May, sex education organizations and our allies are standing up to say that NOW is the time to support #SexEdForAll. There is more that we need to do, but this is an important start.

We invite you to join the nearly 200 organizations who have signed on this May to support Sex Ed For All this month and beyond.