I remember March of 2014 like it was yesterday. Sixth grade was more than halfway over, spring was just around the corner and I was miserable. It had come to my attention that midway through March, just in time for my birthday, our class would begin the dreaded sex education unit in science class. I knew in my heart that this must be a personal attack. How could they do this to me? I was turning twelve, guys, a highly anticipated milestone, and I was going to have to spend my birthday going through the worst possible experience I could imagine. I had never felt more betrayed in my life.
Little did I know that seven years later, I’d be a passionate advocate for making every child in America go through the same thing.
Learning about puberty, body parts and yes, sex, may be a terrible nightmare for pre-teens nationwide, but the reality is that everyone has to learn that stuff at some point. Perhaps even more importantly, it doesn’t have to be a scary or stigmatized process. Sex is the reason we’re all here today. It’s the backbone of human reproduction, a huge part of our culture and one of the many ways that people interact with each other in intimate spaces.
Sex education is the perfect opportunity to introduce students to these big ideas in a neutral and education-based atmosphere. But, unfortunately, this particular section of health class has become a largely vilified topic. As a result, the actual information taught in sex ed is wildly inconsistent across the U.S. as a whole, leaving some kids to receive considerably fewer resources than others. This is largely due to a variance in the personal values behind the curriculum upheld by different local and state legislatures. Being a little bit uneasy or nervous to start a dialogue with children about sex is perfectly normal, but when the discomfort of parents, educators and policy-makers gets in the way of accurately educating students about their own bodies and reproductive rights, we start to have a problem.
Establishing a federally mandated sex education curriculum would place all students on even ground and provide a stable, consistent resource for schools nationwide to refer back to. Furthermore, as evidence has shown time and time and time again, providing kids with less information doesn’t actually reduce teen pregnancies or STIs. Equipping kids with the tools, resources and skills to understand sexuality and sexual practices does. Students nationwide have a right to have access to medically accurate information, and with a federally mandated sex ed curriculum, we could be one step closer to educating our country for the better.
Before we even get into the idea of what a single federal curriculum for sex education could look like, let’s start with where the United States sits in terms of the current policy. The short version: there isn’t one.
According to Planned Parenthood, nearly all “decisions about sex education are made at the state and local level.” This means that “no federal laws dictate what sex education should look like or how it should be taught in schools,” and that the material taught across states can vary substantially. A seventh grader in California will be exposed to content drastically different than a seventh grader in Idaho, even though both children are exactly the same age.
Another major point of consideration is that what qualifies as “sex education” also varies by state. Generally speaking, there are three kinds of sex education: Abstinence-Only, Abstinence-Plus, and Comprehensive Sex Education. Abstinence-Only curriculum (often rebranded as “sexual risk avoidance” (SRA) programs) and Abstinence-Plus curriculum both stress complete abstinence from any sexual activity until marriage, with Abstinence-Plus models including additional information on contraceptives and condoms. By contrast, Comprehensive Sex Education focuses on covering sexual health topics (including abstinence) in a way that provides students with skills to make their own choices. This includes discussing issues like gender identity, sexual orientation, relationships and consent.
This wide variety of sex education “styles” is part of why it can be so confusing to pin down information about the status of sex ed in the United States. For example, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research center for reproductive health policies, 39 states and the District of Columbia mandate some form of sex education for middle and/or high school students. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? But when you look closer, 29 of those states require that abstinence be stressed. 19 emphasize that sexual activity should only be engaged within a marriage. Only nine and the District of Columbia require the importance of consent and only 11 and the District of Columbia require inclusive information about sexual orientation.
Being a little bit uneasy or nervous to start a dialogue with children about sex is perfectly normal, but when the discomfort of parents, educators and policy-makers gets in the way of accurately educating students about their own bodies and reproductive rights, we start to have a problem.
In short, the states that require a fully comprehensive, medically accurate sex education are outnumbered by those that emphasize abstinence and completely avoid detailing the complexities of sexual health, relationships and rights.
Abstinence-based sex ed programs may not seem like a huge deal and are evidently even meme-worthy in our culture, but they can be genuinely damaging to kids. When students aren’t given information that answers even the most basic questions about sexuality, they are at a disadvantage in managing their relationships with others and even with their own bodies. Furthermore, many of these programs attach feelings of shame and degradation to sexual experiences. Some students even cite the “dirty tape” demonstration, in which a teacher touches a piece of tape until it loses its stickiness, as a key lesson learned from some sex ed curriculum.
Though these forms of “education” are not always inherently harmful or traumatizing to children, they still do not focus on fully equipping students with a baseline on the facts of sexual health. Implementing a federally mandated program hinging on medically-accurate and peer-reviewed information would create that baseline for students nationwide.
The good news is that we actually already have a pretty good foundation for what this system could look like! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) already have fully fleshed-out programs, guidelines and analysis tools to help schools create curriculum that “includes medically accurate, developmentally appropriate, and culturally relevant content and skills that target key behavioral outcomes and promote healthy sexual development.” The CDC has developed resources for teacher trainings, community outreach and addressing inequalities among marginalized populations.
If these guidelines could be developed even further, specialized to connect to the unique needs of regional communities, and implemented on a national scale, sex education across the United States could be drastically improved. We would have a consistent, accurate set of information, federal support for teachers and parents and, most importantly, an enhanced ability to connect kids to the resources they need.
At the end of the day, sex ed is probably going to be a little bit of an uncomfortable experience no matter when or how you go through it. There might be giggling, act-it-out scenarios and worksheets that can draw complaints out of even the most mature students. And still, here’s the most important thing of all: that’s totally normal and it’s totally okay. Considering all of the cultural taboos that come with directly talking about sex in America, it makes sense that learning about it for the first time might be a bit of adventure, to put it lightly. But what matters is that kids have the opportunity to start learning about sex in a safe and education-based environment. They are entitled to accurate information about their bodies, their relationships and how to protect themselves (and their partners) from unwanted experiences. Most importantly, they should have access to that education regardless of where they are in the country.
Sixth grade me would be horrified, but like it or not, we need to talk about sex, and we need to talk about it on a nationwide scale.
Mikayla Buhbe wants to remind you that access to information about reproductive health is a human right and that it’s okay if you still giggle about human anatomy sometimes.