Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Reshaping Sex Ed in American Schools

While the corny videos you might have watched in high school health class likely seemed humorous at the time, America’s failure to build an adequate sexual education system is no laughing matter and has real negative consequences. Although rates of teen pregnancy have been declining in recent years, the US still has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates among industrialized nations.  Meanwhile, the rate of nationally reported Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) has been on the rise since 2013, particularly for teens and young adults. Despite comprising only a small percentage of the sexually active population, 15-24 year olds made up nearly two-thirds of all reported cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea in 2014. And sex ed in the country is often too little, too late: About 43 percent of males and 57 percent of females reported that they didn’t receive any formal instruction about contraception before their first sexual experience, and even fewer had received instruction about where to obtain birth control. If it were taught more effectively, sex ed in America could be a tool for fighting societal problems like abusive relationships, rape culture, and homophobia in addition to the important objectives of preventing teen pregnancy and STIs.

Policymakers searching for solutions might do well to look across the Atlantic. In the Netherlands, schools are required to teach some form of “sexuality education” each year, starting the first year of elementary school. These programs don’t just talk about sex – the youngest students talk about things like crushes and friendship, while older elementary school students discuss body image and gender stereotypes. By the age of eleven, students start engaging with topics such as contraception and sexual orientation. Although there is some flexibility in terms of how schools implement these programs, all schools are obligated to cover certain key topics, including pregnancy, STIs, sexual orientation, homophobia, and healthy sexual practices and attitudes.

This comprehensive policy seems to be paying off; the Netherlands has one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world and one of the highest teenage usage rates for hormonal birth control pills. Dutch teens are also more likely than Americans to report a positive and enjoyable first sexual experience. Sex ed is only one factor contributing to these statistics, but proponents of the Dutch method of sexuality education argue that the programs have benefits that extend beyond just STI and pregnancy prevention. While implementing a similar approach in the US is not immediately feasible, the Dutch model can at least provide a positive example that policymakers could and should reference.

American schools currently take a fundamentally different approach to sex ed, with programs that tend to stigmatize sexual desires and shame young adults into abstinence. A 2012 report about sex education in 108 school districts in New York found that many of the programs contained moral overtones about the value of abstinence, sexuality, and family values. One abstinence-only curriculum, Why Am I Tempted (WAIT), has employed the practice of sticking a piece of tape to a young man’s arm at the beginning of a workshop, explaining that each time the tape is removed, it loses its ability to stick. The tape is supposed to represent a woman’s ability to form close relationships, which is harmed each time she engages in sexual activity. These types of abstinence programs revolve around the presumption that promoting abstinence will delay sex among teens and prevent unplanned pregnancy — but in actuality, studies show that abstinence-only strategies have no effect on when teens first have sex, and they tend to increase the risk of teen pregnancy and STIs by withholding information about contraception.

Despite this important progress toward evidence-based sex ed, Americans could still benefit from policies that treat sex ed as more than just prevention. Sex ed is an opportunity to shape children’s ability to communicate, form relationships, and practice safe, consensual sexual behavior.

The same study also found that many schools failed to discuss topics such as sexual orientation, emergency contraception, or different forms of sex. Despite the fact that most Americans support comprehensive sexual education, only 22 states mandate sex ed and only 13 require the information presented in these classes to be medically accurate. Furthermore, only 13 states are required to discuss sexual orientation, and four of these states are only allowed to provide one-sided information, which is often negative and noninclusive. Socially conservative and highly religious states, largely in the south, are more likely to support abstinence-only policies and oppose instruction about ideas like homosexuality and abortion that are contradictory to many parents’ personal beliefs.

As a result, students often face nonfactual or biased information, which can be particularly devastating to young women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Many sex-ed programs in the US present gender stereotypes as fact, portraying girls as inherently “pure” and boys as unable to control their hormones. This kind of pedagogy teaches young women to feel ashamed of their own sexuality and to carry the burden for male sexual desires. Moreover, many programs teach girls how to “say no” to sex but fail to address topics such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, and coercion.

Meanwhile, the lack of inclusive curricula isolates and stigmatizes an already vulnerable group: LGBTQ+ youth are already more likely than their heterosexual peers to experience social isolation and abuse at home, and studies show that LGBTQ+ students who receive abstinence-only education are less likely to feel safe at school and more likely to miss school because they feel uncomfortable. As a result, many teens report seeking information about sexual health online or from their peers, both of which are prone to inaccuracy – this lack of information is particularly dangerous considering that LGBTQ+ youth are at a higher risk for STIs, including HIV.

In the United States, states and local communities largely control education laws, so the quality of sexual education varies by geography, and it’s difficult to establish one cure-all solution. However, instead of solely making an effort to update and improve nationwide sex ed, the federal government actually continues to subsidize bad practices. Title V in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 provides federal grants to states for enacting abstinence-only education programs that uphold ideas like “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity” and “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” Although the Obama Administration has recommended removing federal funding for abstinence-only education, the Republican-controlled Congress approved $75 million in Title V spending and an additional $10 million for community-based abstinence programs for FY 2016.

Fortunately, Congress has also made some substantial progress in improving sex ed. In the past few years, there has been an increase in federal funding for comprehensive sex education programs, and many states have established evidence-based sex-ed curricula for every school. This fall, California passed a law requiring schools to cover topics including HIV treatment, contraception, sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex trafficking in both middle school and high school. Additionally, the Obama Administration launched the President’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative in 2010, which provided $100 million in grants for evidence-based, medically accurate programs about preventing teen pregnancy, and the Personal Responsibility Education Program, which provides $75 million in grants for programs that teach about both abstinence and contraception.

Despite this important progress toward evidence-based sex ed, Americans could still benefit from policies that treat sex ed as more than just prevention. Sex ed is an opportunity to shape children’s ability to communicate, form relationships, and practice safe, consensual sexual behavior. All of these skills could help fight deeply ingrained societal problems such as abusive relationships, rape culture, and intolerance toward LGBTQ+ people. In fact, a new sex-ed policy could play a fundamental role in furthering progress for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. Nonstigmatizing, inclusive sex ed could help LGBTQ+ youth feel welcome and accepted in their communities from a young age and teach students to acknowledge and respect peers with different identities. Moreover, a more comprehensive and long-term approach to sexuality education like the Netherlands’, which aims to promote tolerance and open communication in interpersonal relationships, could help to break down some of the gender roles and stereotypes that are used to shame and stigmatize young women and LGBTQ+ youth.

Even though sexuality remains an intensely personal matter, all children should have the opportunity to learn about sex in an informed way and in a safe place. Children should explore and develop responsible ideas about relationships, sexual health, and identity – not be forced to either ignore those issues or have outdated norms thrust upon them. By avoiding these subjects, even if we have their best interests at heart, we’re only doing our nation’s children harm.

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