Sex Education in Public Schools
Sex education permeates the public school system, but in its current form it is failing to adequately teach students about sex and sexuality. Rates of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections are far too high, particularly among LGBT+ students. Teenagers are uninformed or misinformed about many issues concerning their bodies and turn to alternative forms of sex education, which are usually not very accurate or informative. There is not currently a nationwide standard for sex education. This article discusses the shortcomings of the United States’ present sex education norms—particularly as they relate to abstinence-only sex education programs and the ability of the programs already in place to include queer students—explores the opinions of advocates from multiple sides of the issue (from comprehensive sex education to abstinence-only programs to the complete abolishment of sex education in public schools), and ultimately presents the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SEICUS) and their National Sexuality Education Standards as a viable option for pushing toward the objective of nationwide, comprehensive, and inclusive sex education in public schools. The goal of this article is to start a conversation about the current state of sex education in public schools and the best way to reform sex education moving forward. Sex education permeates the public school system, but in its current form it is failing to adequately teach students about sex and sexuality. Rates of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections are far too high, particularly among LGBT+ students. Teenagers are uninformed or misinformed about many issues concerning their bodies and turn to alternative forms of sex education, which are usually not very accurate or informative. There is not currently a nationwide standard for sex education. This article discusses the shortcomings of the United States’ present sex education norms—particularly as they relate to abstinence-only sex education programs and the ability of the programs already in place to include queer students—explores the opinions of advocates from multiple sides of the issue (from comprehensive sex education to abstinence-only programs to the complete abolishment of sex education in public schools), and ultimately presents the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SEICUS) and their National Sexuality Education Standards as a viable option for pushing toward the objective of nationwide, comprehensive, and inclusive sex education in public schools. The goal of this article is to start a conversation about the current state of sex education in public schools and the best way to reform sex education moving forward.
Nearly everyone who attended public high school suffered through some form of sex education. The image of a little old lady or a football coach standing at the front of a classroom and struggling over the words “penis” and “vagina” is seared into our brains, if we haven’t suppressed the memories entirely. But how much did we really learn and retain in sex education? How many of us walked away feeling completely confident in our understanding of the human body and how sex worked, not just biologically but socially? I would argue not many. Currently, sex education in public schools is failing to adequately teach students about sex and sexuality. While most people agree that sex education needs to be improved, not many can agree on how that should happen. This article will discuss two main shortcomings of public school sex education, briefly explore several differing opinions on how sex education should be taught in schools, and present SIECUS’ National Sexuality Education Standards as a viable option for sex education reform moving forward.
Sex education in public schools across America is largely abstinence-only. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an organization funded in part by Planned Parenthood and claiming to “advance sexual and reproductive health and rights,” nineteen states’ laws require abstinence-only sex education in public schools. The Guttmacher Institute further reports that twenty-nine states do not require sex education at all, and thirty-seven do not require sex education curriculum to be medically accurate. This means that a large portion of American students is not receiving formal sex education; they are forced to rely on what their parents may or may not teach them and what they learn from the Internet. Of the students who do receive sex education in schools, a large number are getting inaccurate information about their bodies. In nearly half of US states—the ones that require abstinence-only sex education—students are not getting any information on contraception or how to stay safe when they eventually do have sex (Guttmacher).
Abstinence-only sex education programs are meant to delay the age at which teenagers start having sex in order to reduce teenage pregnancy. However, according to Advocates for Youth—an organization that strives to help young people make informed decisions about sex and their bodies largely through sex education programs—they do not work. The organization cites several studies throughout America that have conclusively shown that abstinence-only sex education programs do not delay the age at which teenagers start having sex, but they do decrease the regularity with which students correctly use contraception, increasing their risk for sexually transmitted infection and unwanted pregnancy (“The Truth”). Advocates for Youth claims that 95 percent of American adults between the ages of eighteen and forty-four reported having sex before marriage, indicating that abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education is not only ineffective but irrelevant to the majority of Americans.
Another obsolescence of sex education in American public schools is its inability to include every student—specifically the queer ones. Many states do not discuss gender identity or sexual orientation in their sex education programs, and Texas, Alabama, and South Carolina go so far as to require only negative information about same-sex relationships to be taught in schools, if they are mentioned at all (Guttmacher). Because they do not have access to accurate sex education, LGBT+ students are only half as likely to use birth control during sexual intercourse compared to their straight peers, and lesbian and gay teenagers are defying expectations by being three times as likely to have been pregnant or gotten someone pregnant than their straight peers, and there is not a solid explanation as to why. LGBT+ students are also much more likely to use alcohol or drugs before sexual encounters (Kattari). Queer students do not know and are not being taught how to have sex at all, much less safe sex, leading to higher rates of sexually transmitted infection and unwanted pregnancy—the very things sex education is meant to prevent in the first place.
The lack of queer representation in public school sex education leads to several negative social effects, including increased harassment of LGBT+ students. Robert McGarry, director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), discusses ways in which sex education programs typically exclude LGBT+ students. Most commonly, he says, their existence is simply ignored. These programs “[present] heterosexuality as the absolute norm and the only conceivable option for students” (McGarry 28). This refusal of public school curriculums to acknowledge queer people in sex education leads to LGBT+ students’ inability to have healthy sexual relationships or to stay safe within relationships. Tanya McNeill, a faculty member of Wellesley College, argues that, by ignoring or even demonizing queer people, sex education programs are promoting a damaging heteronormativity in schools. She claims that they are encouraging straight students to hold a negative view of their queer peers or to fear them (840). This stigmatization also leads to a greater degree of bullying outside the classroom.
According to the GLSEN National School Climate Survey, 63 percent of queer teenagers said that they did not feel safe at school because of their sexual orientation (qtd in “Sex and Schools” 32). Almost all queer teens reported regularly hearing “gay” used as a pejorative. Eighty-two percent of LGBT+ teens reported being verbally harassed, nearly 40 percent reported being physically harassed, and nearly 20 percent of queer teens reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year (“Sex and Schools” 33). Fortunately, students felt much safer at schools with inclusive sex education; less than half of queer students felt unsafe at schools with inclusive curriculum, compared to two thirds at other schools (McNeill 840). Schools should be safe environments for all students to learn in without fearing for their physical safety, and while inclusive sex education will not completely eliminate social inequality for queer people, it can be a step toward safer schools.
Most people would agree that sex education in its current state is not ideal. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks that sex education is perfect exactly the way it is. Arguments form when solutions are presented to the current state of sex education in schools. Everyone has differing opinions, from taking sex education out of public schools entirely to reforming the process to be included at every grade level. Much of the debate seems to be a clash between proponents of abstinence-only sex education and advocates of comprehensive sex education, with a small section of people with seemingly radically different ideas.
For example, blogger and parent Matt Walsh believes that sex education should be taken out of schools entirely. In Walsh’s view, “Sex is just too big a topic. There’s too much there. It’s too important. The schools cannot handle it, either way, and they shouldn’t try.” In other words, Walsh believes that public schools have proven incapable of adequately teaching the complicated topic of sex education, and every parent wants their child to learn different things, so sex education should not exist in public schools at all.
While I agree that schools are currently not doing a good job of teaching students what they need to know about sex, I do not think that getting rid of standardized sex education is a viable option. If students could not learn about sex education in schools, it would be entirely up to each individual parent to educate their child about sex. Excluding the fact that many students do not have parents or have working parents whom they do not see every day, this leads to awkward conversations, which people tend to avoid or put off indefinitely. Parents can be misinformed or ignorant just as often as their children, and the information sex education provides is constantly changing as new information is found, new drugs and forms of contraception come into being, and rates of sexually transmitted infections fluctuate. This option is also still exclusive of queer students, because many LGBT+ teenagers are not out to their parents or do not feel comfortable asking their (typically straight) parents about same-sex relationships. This is not to say that parents should not talk to their students about sex; parents are a valuable supplement to a student’s sex education, but they are a supplement, and standardized, comprehensive public school sex education is still a necessity.
Another option, provided by the Alliance for Healthy Youth, is the sex education program RSVP, which stands for “Responsible Social Values Program.” RSVP is an abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education program geared toward middle school children. Its goals are to “help students avoid premarital sexual activity, alcohol and other drug use, and promote healthy decision making” (Alliance 7). RSVP equates sex before marriage with alcohol and illegal drug use, claiming that it can lead to loss of income, jail time, addiction, failed relationships, illness, or death. This fear-based teaching style strives to scare students into not having sex before (heterosexual) marriage, telling them that premarital sex will cause them to lose friends (presumably because their friends will think less of them for having sex) and essentially painting sex as a gateway drug that leads to loose morals and STIs. The program also has no information on same-sex relationships, continuing to exclude queer students from sex education.
Though abstinence-only sex education programs have been proven ineffective, they are still a part of the conversation. When researching the debate over sex education in America, it seems that there are two equal camps—about half want abstinence-only sex education, and about half want a more comprehensive approach. The Advocates for Youth, however, report that only about 15 percent of parents want their children to be enrolled in abstinence-only sex education programs with no discussion of contraception. Advocates for Youth also reports that an overwhelming number of Americans (83 percent) think that students should be taught how to put on a condom in public school sex education classes. About 71 percent of Americans think that teenagers need to know where they can get birth control pills (“The Truth”). This data shows that, though some parents still push for abstinence-only curriculum, the majority of Americans want more out of their sex education.
Finally, we have the Future of Sex Education (FoSE), a partnership between Advocates for Youth, Answer, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) that developed National Sexuality Education Standards, a comprehensive and inclusive sex education curriculum. FoSE’s plan has seven key concepts: Anatomy and Physiology; Puberty and Adolescent Development; Identity; Pregnancy and Reproduction; Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV; Healthy Relationships; and Personal Safety (10). Each concept adheres to the National Health Education Standards already in place (11), and each builds on itself over the course of a student’s school career starting in kindergarten. Essentially, this curriculum teaches students about what happens in their bodies physically/biologically, and teaches them what a healthy, non-abusive relationship looks like (this topic covers friendships as well as romantic relationships). The curriculum also discusses queerness, specifically in the Identity section. It teaches students that people identify in different ways and teaches the difference between sexual orientation, sexual identity, gender, and biological sex. These are all important topics that, if McNeill is to be believed, can reduce bullying and stigmatization of queer people.
One important aspect of the Future of Sex Education’s curriculum is that it adheres to SEICUS’ Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education. SEICUS developed national guidelines to determine whether or not a sex education program is comprehensive. These guidelines require sex education to start at the latest by second grade, preferably starting in kindergarten, and continuing through the end of high school. The guidelines concentrate on six key concepts: Human Development, Relationships, Personal Skills, Sexual Behavior, Sexual Health, and Society and Culture. SIECUS offers a good compromise between the three aforementioned conflicting views because they do not specify what must be taught in sex education classes or how they should be taught. Instead, they offer simple guidelines that push for comprehensive sex education while acknowledging RSVP’s focus on abstinence. They concede that abstinence “is the most effective method of preventing pregnancy and STD/HIV” (20). SIECUS also recognizes Walsh’s claim that sex is an incredibly moralistic topic, admitting that there are certain values inherent in the guidelines, but that they try to reflect the value s of the country as a whole. Additionally, the guidelines are meant to be tailored to each community as they are implemented (21).
SIECUS is not perfect. It does push for comprehensive, inclusive, and medically accurate sex education, but there is a lot of wiggle room, and it is not nationally implemented. Our country’s public schools are still burdened with those little old ladies and football coaches struggling to teach children about sex, and people are still advocating for old systems that do not work. SEICUS is a good start, though, and a step in the direction of universally available sex education. I will conclude with a hope that SIECUS and I share: “all children and youth will benefit from comprehensive sexuality education, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or disability” (SIECUS 21). The topic of sex education should not be scary or taboo. We need to start a conversation about it because, ultimately, that conversation will benefit us all.
Alliance for Healthy Youth. “Responsible Social Values Program [Kit].” Alliance for Healthy Youth, 2011. Web. 23 March 2016.
Future of Sex Education. “National Sexuality Education Standards.” Future of Sex Education, 2011. Web. 23 March 2014.
Guttmacher Institute. “State Laws in Brief.” Guttmacher Institute, 1 March 2016. Web. 8 April 2016.
Kattari, Leo. “Left Out: LGBTIQ Inclusivity in Sex Education.” Colorado Youth Matter (2013). Web. 7 February 2016.
McGarry, Robert. “Build a Curriculum that Includes Everyone: Ensuring that Schools are More Accepting of LGBT Students and Issues Requires More than Passing Mentions of Diversity in Sex Education Classes.” Phi Delta Kappan 94.5 (2013): 27. Web. 7 February 2016.
McNeill, Tanya. “Sex Education and the Promotion of Heteronormativity.” Sexualities 16.7 (2013): 826-46. Web. 7 February 2016.
“Sex and Schools: BY THE NUMBERS”. The Phi Delta Kappan 94.5 (2013): 32–33. Web. 7 February 2016.
SIECUS National Guidelines Task Force. “Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education.” Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, 2004. Web. 23 March 2016.
“The Truth About Abstinence-Only Programs.” Advocates for Youth, 2007. Web. 9 April 2016.
Walsh, Matt. “No Thanks, Public Schools. I Don’t Need You To Teach My Kids About Sex.” The Blaze. 11 Dec 2014. Web. 23 March 2016.