General Articles

Sex ed is a human right. It’s time we start treating it like one.

By Madeleine Lowe, Policy Analyst

There are certain things we acknowledge as rights in the U.S. We have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have the right to an education. We have the right to bodily safety.

Some of these rights aren’t protected or afforded to all people equally, but most would agree that these rights should be available to all. There are no statistics necessary to explain why — it’s simply understood that we, as human beings, deserve them.

But there is one right that people often overlook: The right to have a complete and accurate understanding of sex and sexuality.

When we look at conversations around sexuality education for young people, we typically point to statistics for justification. We hear statements like, “young people account for half of the 20 million new STIs reported each year,” or “about 75 percent of pregnancies among teens ages 15 to 19 are unintended.”

While these may certainly be indicators that young people could use more information, they’re far from the main reason we should be advocating for comprehensive sexuality education in schools.

It’s time to move the narrative away from arguing that young people need sex ed solely for prevention purposes and toward the simple fact that it’s a right all young people deserve.

Contrary to the common narrative, young people don’t need quality sexuality education because too many of them are unintentionally pregnant or because too many of them contract STIs. They deserve it because they are human beings, and humans have a right to the knowledge and skills they need to lead healthy lives and to make the decisions that are best for them.

Unfortunately, many young people are denied their right to sexuality education every day due to a lack of access. Only 29 states and the District of Columbia mandate sexuality education in schools, and 31 states require any sex ed offered to stress abstinence — often withholding vital information students need to stay healthy. Additionally, a shocking 21 states have no requirements that sexuality education be age-appropriate, medically accurate, culturally appropriate, or evidence-based. So, if a student can’t access the quality sex ed that they deserve because it is simply not offered where they live, what kind of right is that?

Similar rights-based thinking is used in making the argument for safe and legal abortion. Statistics are sometimes thrown around to support it, but the unqualified, ultimate argument for legal abortion is “it is my decision whether and when to parent.” Reproductive health, rights, and justice activists have hit the nail on the head: People have the right to determine what happens to their bodies, and it’s simply unjust to prevent them from being able to make those decisions.

Hundreds of thousands of reproductive rights advocates marched earlier this year espousing this very sentiment. The core belief behind the often-used “my body, my choice” slogan is that of bodily autonomy. Without the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion, people are unable to control if, when, and under what circumstances they give birth.

But much like sexuality education, the right to abortion is often stymied by a lack of or restricted access. As of 2014, 90 percent of counties in the U.S. have no abortion providers, creating a critical lack of access for the 39 percent of women of reproductive age who live in those counties. Though Roe v. Wadeensured the right to abortion, for many, that doesn’t guarantee the ability to get one.

Taking away the right and access to abortion means taking away people’s control over what happens to their bodies and their lives — and that’s fully unacceptable.

There are millions of reasons why a person might choose to have an abortion. And any one of them is 100% valid. As human beings, we have varying opinions, values, beliefs, and desires. However, no belief or opinion should dictate a person’s ability to make the informed heath care choice that works best for them.

So, I ask: how is the right to abortion different from the right to sex ed?

Young people, like all people, have the right to autonomy over their bodies — to be fully in charge of their health and well-being regardless of anyone’s opinions, values, beliefs, or desires. But we deny them that right when we withhold information that allows them to fully understand the decisions they may make regarding sexual health.

Sure, we could point to studies and stats when making the case for comprehensive sexuality education — because they are plentiful.

But, a rights-based approach to comprehensive sexuality education in schools should be a no-brainer. Much like other forms of education or training — where we aim to provide people with as much information as possible — it just makes sense.

Let’s take driving as an example. No matter who you are or how you drive, there are potential risks associated with driving a car, but no one expects you to avoid driving altogether because of them.

And while accidents are possible, there are certain steps we take as a society to mitigate risks. For example, we all take driver’s ed and learn all the information and options we need to ensure our wellbeing while we’re on the road. It’s a given that this is important and necessary.

Now, let’s talk about sex. Sure, there are potential risks associated with engaging in sexual activity no matter who you are or how you have sex. But, it’s completely unrealistic to expect that human beings will avoid sex altogether because of them.

People enjoy sex, and in addition to allowing us to reproduce (in the context of penis-in-vagina sex), it brings with it myriad social, emotional, and physical benefits.

But above all else, sexuality is a fundamental part of being human. Everyone has a right to the information they need to engage in sexual activity in a way that’s not only safe, but also, right for them.

This driving/sex analogy isn’t perfect, of course. Driving is a privilege that people enjoy, while sex is an integral part of life that everyone has a right to fully understand. And while driver’s ed is an impersonal state requirement, sex ed serves as an important key to bodily autonomy. But the basics stand.

Most people will drive in their lifetimes, and it’s understood that driver’s ed is needed for them to do so safely and successfully. Similarly, most people will have sex in their lifetimes, and sex ed should be an obvious accompaniment. It’s ludicrous to assert that anyone should be expected to know exactly what they’re doing in the bedroom without learning some rules of the road.

Saying that young people need sexuality education just to prevent unintended pregnancy and STIs is a disservice. Young people deserve to fully understand their bodies and the potential outcomes of any sexual decision they may or may not make.

We should be following in the footsteps of reproductive health, rights, and justice activists. Let’s let it be known that refusing young people quality sexuality education robs them of the right to information that’s fundamental to ensuring their lifelong health and well-being.

I, for one, want to be part of a nation that equips its emerging leaders with all the tools possible for success — whatever that means for them.