New story map illustrates sex ed as a path forward for social change
May is #SexEdForAll month. While most people still believe sex education is just about sex, in reality it is so much more than that. That’s why I created the Sexuality Education Legislation and Policy: A State-by-State Comparison of Health Indicators story map, in conjunction with the Robert Graham Center.
The story map shows the full impact that sex education programs have on communities across the country. It explores sex education legislation and policies by state and compares them to each state’s respective health indicators, including teen birth rate, contraceptive prevalence rate, sexually transmitted infection (STI) rate, sexual violence, physical dating violence, bullying/harassment, and suicide. This story map can be used as a visually accessible advocacy tool to demonstrate the breadth of health indicators impacted by comprehensive sex education.
In addition to the sexual and reproductive health benefits, comprehensive sex education is a powerful vehicle for addressing reproductive justice, gender equity, LGBTQ+ equality, violence prevention, and other issues of power and oppression.
How does comprehensive sex education address health disparities?
Based on data from the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance and presented as a story map in Sexuality Education Legislation and Policy: A State-by-State Comparison of Health Indicators, there are significant health inequities faced by women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ population. For example, data shows that women:
- Experience sexual violence (15.2%) more often than male students (4.3%)
- Experience physical dating violence (9.1%) more often than male students (6.5%)
- Are bullied (22.3%) on school property more often than male students (15.6%)
- Have seriously considered attempting suicide (22.1%) more often than male students (11.9%)
Comprehensive sex education addresses gender roles and behaviors, which are largely based on social norms. Differences in gender roles and behaviors are a primary etiology of gender inequality and ultimately, gender-based violence. Sex education guides students in development of healthy self-identities, generates tolerance and respect for people with diverse gender identities, analyzes societal gender roles, challenges harmful gender norms, and encourages mutually respectful and equitable relationships. A core tenant of sex education is that all genders are equal and gender-based violence is a violation of human rights.
Further, data also reveals the following about race/ethnicity:
- Black students (10.2%) more often experience physical dating violence compared to white (7.0%) and Hispanic students (7.6%)
- Hispanic students (16.3%) are more often bullied on school property compared to Black students (13.2%)
People of color are at increased risk for violence, including physical dating violence and bullying. Though the etiology and evolution of racism in the United States is complex, sex education addresses racial justice through teaching tolerance and challenging social norms.
Moreover, the Professional Learning Standards for Sex Education address racial inequities by teaching students to analyze the ways in which power, privilege, prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes related to race and ethnicity impact sexual health and reproductive justice.
Additionally, data demonstrates that gay, lesbian, and bisexual students:
- Experience sexual violence (22.2%) more often than heterosexual students (7.9%)
- Experience physical dating violence (17.2%) more often than heterosexual students (6.4%)
- Are bullied (33.0%) on school property more often than heterosexual students (17.1%)
- Have seriously considered attempting suicide (47.7%) more often than heterosexual students (13.3%)
Students who identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, physical dating violence, bullying, and suicide. Comprehensive sex education is paramount to addressing this disparity, as it teaches students to develop healthy self-identities, normalizes the diverse spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation, challenges societal norms, and encourages mutually respectful and equitable relationships with all people.
This data clearly demonstrates the health inequities faced by women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ population. These disparities have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as we have seen significant increases in intimate partner violence, domestic violence perpetrated against LGBTQ+ youth, and suicide due to isolation and despair.
We also know that factors like socioeconomic status, religious identity, immigration status, educational level, and geographic location influence health outcomes, among other factors
How does comprehensive sex education impact bullying, harassment, and suicide?
People bully for many reasons, including low self-esteem, emotional neglect, and some bullies may be victims of violence themselves. Personal safety is a core component of sex education and bullying prevention plays a large role. Sex education teaches students that bullying is wrong as well as how to respond if they are being bullied. Further, sex education guides students in identity development, healthy self-esteem, and body confidence, all of which largely influence one’s sense of self, thereby decreasing risk for students to bully or be bullied.
Moreover, sex education is a powerful vehicle for addressing youth risk factors for depression and suicide. Sex education teaches students to build healthy self-esteem and body confidence, as well as normalizes the full spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation. It also encourages mutually respectful and equitable relationships based on empathy and open communication, teaches personal safety—including how to respond to bullying and harassment—and ultimately, promotes tolerance. These life skills act as protective factors against depression and suicide.
For comprehensive sex education to be successfully implemented, there needs to be a trained workforce to deliver this curriculum. Just as teachers are trained in their degree programs to deliver age- and developmentally appropriate curricula on math, science, language, and the humanities, teachers should also be trained to provide developmentally and culturally responsive, science-based, and medically accurate sex education, in accordance with the National Sex Education Standards.
Within the United States, sex education is not standardized across states, counties, or even school systems, and a large proportion of sex education programs are neither evidence-based nor medically accurate.
#SexEdForAll month highlights that all young people deserve developmentally and culturally responsive, science-based, and medically accurate life skills education. Sexuality Education Legislation and Policy: A State-by-State Comparison of Health Indicators, presented as a story map, can be used as a visually accessible advocacy tool to demonstrate that sex education isn’t just about sex… it’s a powerful vehicle for social change.