General Articles

Sex ed is a vehicle for social change. Full stop.

By Christine Soyong Harley, President & CEO

It’s 2019 and most young people in this country still aren’t receiving quality sex education at school.

We know that sex ed is vital for providing young people with the information and skills they need to ensure their lifelong sexual health and well-being. Comprehensive sexuality education leads to better sexual health outcomes for young people–from lower rates of STIs, to fewer unintended pregnancies, to increased use of condoms and other contraceptives.

We know this. We write about this. We talk about this. A lot.

But we need to get better at highlighting the fact that sex education is also a powerful vehicle for social change.

Sex ed for social change — What does that mean?

While sex education is a necessary sexual health tool, it can (and should) be so much more than that. With sex education, we have a golden opportunity to create a culture shift–tackling the misinformation, shame, and stigma that create the basis for many of today’s sexual and reproductive health and rights issues, like:

  • Reproductive justice
  • LGBTQ equality
  • Sexual violence prevention
  • Gender equity
  • Dismantling white supremacy

Think about it: At the root of each of the issues above (among the many more that exist) is a need to teach people about them in an appropriate, unbiased, and accurate way–presenting young people, early on, with the evidence, not the ideologies.

The good news is: we already have a way to do this. We just need to prioritize it.

At SIECUS, we’re working toward a world where everyone receives comprehensive sexuality education (CSE)–no matter who they are or where they live.

CSE refers to “sex education programs that, in school-based settings, start by kindergarten and continue through 12th grade. High-quality CSE programs include age, developmentally, and culturally appropriate, science-based, and medically accurate information on a broad set of topics related to sexuality, including human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behaviors, including abstinence, sexual health, and society and culture. CSE programs provide students with opportunities for learning information, exploring their attitudes and values, and developing skills.”

It’s a lengthy definition, but an important one. With CSE, we can provide sex education that takes into account the actual, lived experiences of the students in the classroom.

It’s more than just teaching young people how to have safer sex. It’s also key to dismantling the systems of power, oppression, and misinformation that allow today’s biggest sexual and reproductive health and rights injustices to exist in the first place.

CSE is LGBTQ inclusion. It is sexual violence prevention. It tackles racial, sexualized stereotypes that put people of color at greater risk of experiencing violence. It debunks harmful gender stereotypes. It defines and promotes enthusiastic consent practices. And it empowers each of us to claim the right to our own bodily autonomy.

Don’t just take our word for it.

We reached out to leading movers and shakers working in intersecting areas of sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice to share how comprehensive sexuality education could impact the communities they serve and the issues they fight for:

Dominique Morgan, National Director at Black and Pink — an open family for LGBTQ prisoners and “free world” allies who support each other:

“Many youth who are system-involved have a lived experience of violence and removal of power at the hands of those who should be making sure they are safe. Comprehensive sexuality education is one of the most versatile power activation tools I’ve ever seen. From the revelation that your body is yours alone, to learning how to love and be loved, the education that youth can receive with CSE is a game changer – especially for young people who have generational trauma we are trying to dismantle. Also, the age-old response of CSE ‘not being necessary because youth will have parents to educate them’ removes the lived experience of youth who are in state custody at any level. Who will decide that these kids should have the education that allows them to be their best selves? Those who need it most suffer from our lack of an intersectional response to the needs of youth in our communities.”

Laura Palumbo, Communications Director at National Sexual Violence Resource Center — the leading nonprofit in providing information and tools to prevent and respond to sexual violence.

“Consent is more than just a word we need to teach to young people, it is a skill set. Practicing consent is the ability to communicate your needs, desires, and boundaries in relationships and to respect the rights and preferences of others. Young people need tools to be able to navigate their relationships – to make informed decisions about what they want for themselves, to feel confident setting boundaries, to know their voice matters and needs to be respected, and to handle rejection when someone says no. Educating young people about sex and relationships is empowerment. We can empower youth to ask questions, practice consent, pursue healthy relationships, and ultimately play a role in preventing sexual harassment, assault, and abuse.”

Jessica Pinckney, Vice President of Government Affairs at In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda — a national organizational initiative designed to amplify and lift up the voices of Black women at the national and regional levels in our ongoing fight to secure Reproductive Justice for all women and girls.

“A world where everyone received comprehensive sexuality education would mean we were one step closer to our goal of reproductive justice for all women, girls, and femmes. Beyond the obvious, well-documented benefits like reducing health disparities, STI contraction rates, and unintended pregnancies, comprehensive sexuality education gives young people of color – particularly Black, queer, and trans folks – autonomy and the agency to explore the formation of healthy relationships with others as well as themselves. At the core of Reproductive Justice is the principle that we all have the human right to control our bodies, our sexuality, our gender, our work, and our reproduction; comprehensive sexuality education brings us closer to this, so we must continue to fight for legislation that helps instead of harms our young people.”

Taissa Morimoto, Policy Counsel, The National LGBTQ Task Force — the country’s oldest national LGBTQ advocacy group.

“If everyone received CSE, we would see a world where systems of patriarchy, white supremacy, and cisheterosexism cannot continue to thrive. I imagine a country where bullying is viewed as shameful rather than being indirectly praised; where rape culture isn’t dismissed as ‘boys being boys;’ where LGBTQ people are not only visible and feel seen, but are celebrated. Because when we provide CSE to young people throughout the country, it will have a greater impact than keeping young people sexually healthy and safe – it will teach people to communicate more effectively, to learn about and appreciate different cultures, and to become more informed individuals from a young age.”

Lucinda Holt, Director of Communications at Answer–a national organization based at Rutgers University that provides and promotes comprehensive sex education through teacher training and educational resources, like its teen-written magazine and website, Sex, Etc.

“Answer envisions a country where sexuality is recognized as a normal, healthy part of development and all young people receive a comprehensive sex education. We work toward this vision because young people need and deserve to learn about consent, healthy relationships and how to respect each other’s boundaries—not the last semester of senior year but through ongoing lessons over the course of their K-12 education. They deserve to learn in environments that are free from homophobia and transphobia and safe for all students regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. They deserve to understand how their bodies work and to learn the skills necessary to keep them healthy. They deserve to be taught by educators who are well-trained. They deserve teachers who can provide medically accurate, culturally and developmentally appropriate information. This is what they deserve, and it won’t happen unless we insist on high-quality sex education for all students.”

Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes, Director of Public Policy at Advocates for Youth–a group that works alongside thousands of young people in the U.S. and around the globe as they fight for sexual health, rights, and justice.

“A world where everyone receives comprehensive sexuality education would mean everyone has the information they need to plan their futures and protect their health. If all young people received sex ed that is comprehensive, LGBT-inclusive, and culturally responsive – then young queer students of color would feel seen and valued, and sexuality would be normalized, not stigmatized. While we still need to dismantle structural barriers like poverty and lack of access to health care, ensuring everyone gets quality sex ed is a crucial step toward a sexually healthy world. And a sexually healthy world where everyone receives comprehensive sexuality education is a world that acknowledges that young people have the right to lead healthy lives.”

Join the conversation.

We want to hear from you, too. (Yes, YOU!) Join us on Twitter as we kick off conversations about sex ed for social change. Don’t forget a hashtag. We’re using an old favorite: #SexEdForSocialChange.

To get started, consider answering the question,
“What would the world look like if everyone received comprehensive sex education?”