It’s time to rethink sex ed.
By Jennifer Driver, State Policy Director
Whenever I ask my colleagues and friends to describe the sex education they received growing up, the most common response is, “bad.” This is particularly common among those who were forced to sit through a horrific abstinence-only class. They often share that the untrained coach made them read a brief section in a text book or that their school separated the girls and boys to watch awkward videos made in the 1970s.
And, sadly, not a whole lot has changed for young people today. While I don’t find as many young people separated by gender, I do find that we still maintain a very narrow vision of what sex education is. When we think of sex education, we often think of a brief 6-18 week curriculum delivered to young people in a classroom or community setting.
But, let’s be honest. Learning about anything for 6-18 weeks will have very little long-lasting impact. And this time frame certainly isn’t long enough to cover all of human development and reproduction. So why do we keep providing young people with these short-term programs and call it, “sex education?”
This approach creates added confusion–offering half-answered questions and barely glossing over complex concepts. And, more importantly, it also denies young people of their right to receive a fundamental understanding our their own bodies.
This approach to sex ed does not, and cannot, provide the adequate foundation for learning and skill building that young people need.
Setting and building foundations for most school subjects—like math, English, science—is common sense. We establish standards to guide the learning process: foundational understandings in grades K-5; reflecting and transitioning to more complex concepts in grades 6-8; and by the time students are in grades 9-12, we start applying the information they learn into real-world concepts.
No one says “No, no, no! I don’t want Timmy to learn about addition and subtraction in first grade! That’s way too young.” Why? Because we all understand that addition and subtraction are necessary in setting the foundation for things to come. Learning these concepts early on allows young people to receive age and developmentally appropriate information that can then be built upon as they grow to learn more advanced topics like linear equations and polynomial expressions.
So why can’t we do the same as we teach young people about their health and well-being? Sex ed is not a one-off lesson type of topic, or something that should be reserved for seniors in high school. It is a sequential, K-12 experience that young people need to receive in school.
What do we mean when we say, “sex ed?”
At SIECUS, when we say “sex education,” we are thinking beyond a program that shows scary photos of STIs to a class of high schoolers and quizzes them on labeling reproductive organs. We know that young people need more. For us, sex education addresses ALL of these components:
- Human development and anatomy;
- Relationships (including families, peers, romantic relationships and dating);
- Violence prevention (including consent, sexual violence);
- Mental and emotional health;
- Personal skills (including communication, negotiation, personal safety, consent, and decision-making);
- Sexual behavior (including abstinence and sexuality throughout life);
- Reproductive health (STDs, contraception, miscarriages, abortion, and pregnancy);
- LGBTQ youth, youth with disabilities, youth of color, and
- Society and culture.
This is a lengthy list, but it is an important one. While many of the programs we offer young people today include components of sex ed, very few young people receive the complete education that they both need and deserve.
It’s time to rethink sex education.
Rethinking sex education means ensuring young people are receiving well-rounded and diverse information about their sexual and reproductive health. It means that we need to do more than simply identify “negative” health outcomes and potential risks such as unintended pregnancy and STIs.
It means “sex education” includes teaching children to have agency over their own bodies and to respect the autonomy of others. It means teaching young people about the changes they can expect to happen to their bodies during puberty, before they happen. It means young people have accurate information upon which to make decisions when navigating intimate relationships and their own sexual and reproductive health care.
Rethinking sex education also means making the connection between sex ed and some of the most pressing social issues of our time including abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, immigration, racism, social disorganization, and educational inequality.
We must ensure that legislation and policies that are introduced and enacted that reflect every single one of these issues.
Imagine what the #MeToo movement would look like if people everywhere started to rethink sex education. We would have an entire generation of folks that could clearly articulate and define consent. We would have more people who understand what sexual violence is. We would have young people coming of age with an ingrained respect for their own and other people’s right to bodily autonomy. And we would have a society that can frame and respond to sexual violence in a way that does not further traumatize, shame, or blame survivors, but instead, places the blame squarely on the perpetrators.
We are striving to encourage everyone to rethink sex education. And you can help! Insist that policies in your school district allow for implementation of the sex ed young people not only need, but have a right to receive. Advocate for funding that supports comprehensive sex ed at federal, state, and local levels (We have suggestions for how to do all of this).
It’s 2019. And we can no longer allow a one-off, half-baked lesson plan and a prayer to count as “sex education.” Our young people deserve so much more.