The problem with sex ed is…
It’s a story that we hear day in and day out: “My sex ed was atrocious — we saw a pregnancy video and then they told us not to have sex!” or “A speaker came to our class and told us we’d be like ‘chewed up gum’ if we ever had sex…” and even worse still, “I never had sex ed. Everything I learned, I learned from the internet.”
Unfortunately, these are the realities for millions of young people across the country. According to data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), less than 40 percent of high schools and fewer than 1 in 6 middle schools in this country teach all 19 sexual health education topics that the CDC has determined are critical to young people’s sexual health.
So, why is it so hard to get quality sexuality education? One of the biggest reasons is the “patchwork” approach to laws and policies across the country. Whether or not young people receive sexuality education is entirely dependent on the state they live in, their school district or school administrators, and, sometimes, the educator in the classroom.
It’s entirely possible that in the same state, a young person living in one school district can have a totally different experience compared to their friend in the next district over. Sometimes it’s a function of how or whether state laws exist that require sexuality education and, other times, it’s entirely down to whether or not sexuality education is actually being implemented.
Another challenge for sexuality education has been the scourge of abstinence-only-until marriage programs. For a long time, these programs were heavily favored and funded by the federal government — to the tune of over $2 billion across the last 35 years — encouraging a “just say no” approach to sex. This approach is not only harmful for withholding critical information from young people but it’s also shaming, stigmatizing, and exclusionary of LGBTQ youth.
You might hear the term “abstinence education” thrown around when people refer to these programs. However, purposely failing to provide information or flat-out refusing to educate students about a topic does not constitute “education.”
If you think about it, this wild variation in young people’s experiences with sexuality education is a huge problem. Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of our humanity, one that is worthy of dignity and respect. Consistent, quality sexuality education is critical for a young person’s development because it provides the information they need to make informed and autonomous decisions about their bodies and their lives. Denying a young person sexuality education — for whatever reason — is a violation of their human rights.
All people have the right to accurate information and education about their sexual and reproductive health and their sexuality.
But it’s also important to remember that not all sexuality education is created equal. After all the term “sex ed” can mean different things to different people. When SIECUS talks about sexuality education, we make clear the distinction between what people traditionally think of as “sex ed” — information about abstinence, condoms, and contraception — and comprehensive sexuality education, which includes those same critical sexual health education topics but is far more robust.
Comprehensive sexuality education incorporates a holistic approach to learning about your body; about different ways of communicating and establishing relationships of all kinds with peers, partners, parents, and society; and about having autonomy to assess and challenge the injustices that our culture perpetuates around gender and sexuality. It’s also medically accurate and complete, appropriate based on age, development, and culture, with instruction taking place sequentially throughout the K–12 school years.
Comprehensive sexuality education is what we might call “the gold standard” of education. But, ensuring that young people have, at the very least, sexual health education so they can make informed decisions (if they decide to engage in sexual activity) is why advocating for medically accurate sexuality education is critical.
Not every policy fight will be won with requiring comprehensive sexuality education in schools. But every step toward that goal is worthwhile. It’s why we work every day with policymakers and partners at the national, state, and local levels to ensure that young people have access to sexuality education that teaches them to live healthy and full lives now and in the future.