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This could be a big year for sex ed in Texas. Here’s what you need to know.

By Anupriya Jacob, SIECUS Policy Intern

For the first time since 1997, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is updating its health curriculum standards–which include sex education. This offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for young Texans to stop receiving harmful, ineffective abstinence-only lessons and, instead, start to get the comprehensive sex education they deserve.  

Texas is a “poster child” for K-12 abstinence-only programming and the harm it causes young people.

As of now, Texas schools are not required to teach sex education. But if they choose to do so, the curriculum must emphasize abstinence. Parents can also opt their children out of sex ed. Texas was awarded more federal funding for abstinence-only programs than any other state each year from 2004 through 2018. Those federal dollars have supported an explosion of abstinence-only programs in schools and communities across the state. 

Unsurprisingly, this abstinence-only-until-marriage approach simply does not reflect the real experiences of young Texans. In 2017, over 62% of high school seniors reported having already engaged in sexual activity. Disappointingly, over 60% of those students reported that they did not use a condom during the last time they had intercourse.

As a leader in abstinence-only instruction, the state has unsurprisingly reported disproportionate rates of negative sexual and reproductive health outcomes among its young people. These include:

  • Maternal mortality rates among people of color: A 2018 study reported that the mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black women was 2.3 times higher than the rate for non-Hispanic white women in 2012. This rate held true regardless of income, education and other health factors. 
  • HIV and other STIs: The HIV infection rate among young people in Texas is 8 per 100,000 in comparison to the national average of 5.7 per 100,000. Texas also has incredibly high rates of STI infections among teens: 15th highest for gonorrhea, 17th highest for cases of syphilis and 21st highest for chlamydia. 
  • Sexual Violence: In 2017, more than 1 in 7 female and 1 in 16 male high school students reported  experiencing sexual violence in the previous 12 months. 

Updating Texas’s sex education standards to call for more comprehensive programs could benefit the young people who need it most.

The Time for Change: Sex Education and the Texas Health Curriculum Standards report explains that marginalized young people, such as youth of color, low-income folks, and LGBTQ+ youth face discrimination and significant barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health care. Nearly two-thirds of Native and Indigenous LGBTQ+ young people don’t feel supported by their school administration.

Further, a 2017 nationwide study found that nearly 59.5 percent of LGBTQ+ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 44.6 percent because of their gender expression. LGBTQ+ students of color who experience an intersection of racist and homophobic victimization report disparate levels of depression, a lack of belonging at school, and skipping school days due to feeling unsafe. These issues become exacerbated by education policies that restrict young people from vital information about their sexual health and identity. 

Abstinence-only programs teach misleading information about contraception, emphasizing fear and shame-based instruction to persuade teens to remain abstinent. They also fail to provide information about abortion care, and typically operate from the assumption that all students in the classroom are heterosexual, cisgender, and white. Abstinence-only programs prevent young people of all communities from making healthy and autonomous decisions.

This alarming research provided the evidence to underpin the powerful stories from Texas youth speaking out against their harmful experiences with abstinence only instruction. Together, these became a catalyst for change, prompting the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the State Board of Education (SBOE) to review and potentially advance their education policy for the first time in over two decades. Many of the state’s leaders have started to acknowledge that standards requiring education on contraception, healthy relationships, consent and other key sexual and reproductive health topics are needed.

What could updating these standards mean for students in Texas?

We know that comprehensive sex education works. It is proven to reduce unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, prevent sexual violence, and address a variety of additional sexual health disparities in young people. In fact, a 2012 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that sex education programs that include instruction on both abstinence and contraception led to a 40 percent increase in contraception and condom use, an 11 percent decrease in pregnancy rates and a 35 percent decrease in STI rates among young people when compared to those who received strictly abstinence-only instruction. 

Furthermore, comprehensive sex education is inclusive of LGBTQ+ people and youth of color while promoting informed decision making over shame and fear-based tactics when discussing sexuality. Currently, Texas is one of eight states (along with Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Oklahoma) that mandate discriminatory instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. According to the GLSEN 2017 National School Climate Survey, 21.8% of student respondents reported that they received sex education that covered LGBTQ+ topics, and only 6.7% received positive representations of these communities. The same research shows that providing LGBTQ-inclusive education leads students to feel safer in their schools. In a survey of more than 1,200 middle and high school students across California, students who received LGBTQ-inclusive lessons were less likely to report bullying based on sexual orientation and gender expression and more likely to feel safe at school. 

If the State Board of Education moves forward with changing their state-wide regulations to call for more comprehensive sex education instruction, young people all over the state will have a readily available and consistent resource to learn about critical topics in sexual health. Ultimately, a win for effective comprehensive sex education is a win for young people overall. 

How can you help support efforts to improve sex education in Texas?

There are plenty of opportunities to support the work that many tireless advocates and champions for young people are doing in Texas, right now. Here are a few tips to get started: 

  1. Learn more about what’s at stake with sex ed in Texas by reading the full report, Time for Change: Sex Education and the Texas Health Curriculum Standards created in partnership between the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund & SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change.
  2. Support the Teach the Truth campaign led by the Texas Freedom Network by joining the movement and staying informed on the updates in the push for effective sex education. Spread the word on whatever platform you can! The Teach The Truth campaign offers many options to advocate for CSE, or simply share your experience with others across social media and beyond.
  3. Educator yourselves further on the topic of sex education, how it works in your community, and the tools you have to help advance it. While this landmark event is happening in Texas, we all need to learn about and advocate for sex education in our communities–no matter where we live. Check out SIECUS’ blog post that details  five steps to take, right now, to advance sex ed wherever you live. 

Comprehensive sex education would give young Texans the opportunity to thrive and make smart, healthy decisions for themselves. Take action now to support a brighter future for Texas youth!