Reforming State Sexual Education
This paper will address state legislation and data on sexual education in North Carolina and comparing it to Oregon, as both states have similar population sizes and proportional rural-to-urban area ratios. First, it will explain why sexual education is so important and how many states lack proper sexual education. Then there will be a comparison between North Carolina’s and Oregon’s teen pregnancy, abortion, and sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates, as well as the laws and resources offered by these states. Analyzing this data will reveal the positive effects of proper comprehensive sexual education on communities. The paper will then pose the question: What stands in the way of providing comprehensive sexual education for youth? It will discuss four contributing factors: money, politics, health care and discrimination. Afterward, there will be a discussion of laws and state legislation that need to be added or changed in support of comprehensive sexual education, as well as potential political and societal areas for improvement. This research and paper are important because women, minority communities, and the LGBTQ+ community are being denied comprehensive sexual, reproductive, and general health care in states like North Carolina. This lack of proper sexual education will lead to further oppression of these groups if unchecked. Better sexual education will help women and members of the LGBTQ+ community as well as improve the overall health and wellbeing of all communities and individuals in North Carolina and other affected states. The research presented here is different from others studying sexual health because it offers a direct, state-to-state comparison which reveals what is working with certain states’ sexual health education laws, legislation and curriculum, and what is not. Thus, the paper will be creating a direct correlation of overall sexual health of states with comprehensive sexual education and those without in order to analyze what needs reforming, and what the United States can do to improve sexual education nationwide.
What is sexual education? Sexual education teaches a lot more than just what is sex and our reproductive systems. Sexual education provides a variety of information, skills and tools needed within individuals’ sexual lives and relationships. Sexual education covers puberty, anatomy, sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as relationships including self, family, friendships, romance, and health care providers. It also teaches personal skills, including communication, boundary setting, negotiation, and decision making. Media literacy, sexual wellness, and reproductive freedom are also included in sexual education. It addresses sexual behavior, including the full spectrum of ways people choose to be, or not to be, as well as sexual health, including STIs, birth control, pregnancy, and abortion. While all of these topics are typically part of a very thorough and comprehensive sexual education, very little states actually teach or allow the teachings of all the topics mentioned.
Sexual education, sexual equality, and sexual health practices can either empower or further marginalize communities through institutionalized sexism, heteronormativity, and racism, which is detrimental to communities such as women, people of color, and those who are LGBTQ+ identifying. Sexual education is lacking, ignored, underfunded, and politicized in the United Sates, and is therefore often a taboo topic, or one filled with mixed messages from media, family, school, and political institutions. Comprehensive sexual education and health resources improves poverty rates, prevents teen pregnancy and STIs, all of which can otherwise negatively affect communities. Sexual education is a huge step toward reforming oppressive policies by promoting information and resources that are crucial for wellbeing. Overall, educating people on their health rights and their sexual life and relationships will allow them more freedom, choices, and a better understanding of themselves.1 We must recognize the role that early sexual education has in preventing systemic issues that are amplified by financial and gendered inequality, homophobia, and racism. Early sexual education will help the overall health and wellbeing of communities.
In support of a positive argument for comprehensive sexual education, a comparative analysis between North Carolina and Oregon will be performed. This comparison of sexual health and sexual education laws of Oregon to North Carolina is helpful because Oregon has similar sizes of major cities and rural areas to North Carolina . Following this analysis, it will become evident that there are four major factors in poor sexual education that we can apply across state lines: funding, politics, health care, and discrimination. Discussion of these factors will follow the comparative analysis.
The first point of analysis will be state sexual education policy. According to “Sex and HIV Education,” an article published by the Guttmacher Institute, it was found that in the US, only 32 states require sexual education.2 Thirteen do not require medically accurate or evidence-based information, and another thirteen states only require sexual education to cover consent. Only ten states have policies that include affirming sexual orientation instruction on LGBTQ+ identification, and additionally, six states actually require instruction that discriminates against LGBTQ+ persons.3
North Carolina is technically progressive with their sexual education laws. According to the SIECUS Public Policy North Carolina State Profile, out of the states that require sexual education, only eighteen require the information to be medically accurate.4 North Carolina is one of those states. North Carolina requires sexual education on abstinence, contraceptives, STI prevention, and sexual assault. But rural areas lack the resources to receive this type of comprehensive sexual education. North Carolina’s sexual education also lacks in areas focused on LGBTQ+ and gender education. It has one of the highest STI infection rates in the country, ranked sixth overall. Additionally, it is ranked eighth in highest HIV diagnosis.5
Conversely to North Carolina, Oregon is very progressive and forward in its sexual education and sexual education laws. Oregon’s sexual education is required for all, and must be medically accurate and culturally appropriate. Sexual education must be up-to-date and address consent, and it requires information on LGBTQ+ identities and sexual orientation. Oregon does still require abstinence-only teaching, but it is notable that almost every state in the US does as well. Oregon’s teen birth rates and STI/HIV infection rates are lower than most states, including North Carolina. Oregon’s teen birth rate is lower than the national average, including North Carolina’s comparative rate. Its STI rates are also lower than North Carolina’s. Finally, Oregon’s teen abortion rate is lower than the national average, and lower than North Carolina’s.6
Oregon’s sexual education is different than the other legislation already addressed, with newer and more comprehensive programs on sexual education. Looking at Elizabeth Miller’s article, “Oregon’s New Sex Ed Curriculum Has More than Just Birds and Bees,” Oregon has implemented new health education standards, such as Erin’s Law.7 According to Erin’s Law, students beginning in kindergarten learn about media influence on health, ways to prevent diseases, and consent, but the lessons aren’t the same at five as they are at fifteen for these students. Instead, they are given age-appropriate techniques to recognize child sexual abuse and tell a trusted adult. This teaches consent to kids from a young age while still being age-appropriate for children. Students in Oregon also learn that about gender expression and respectful communication with people of all sexual orientations from young ages.
Looking at the data, there is an obvious positive correlation between states with progressive legislation and laws, and low STI rates, teen pregnancy rates, and low abortion rates. With this correlation of data and sexual health rates, why hasn’t North Carolina improved? What is standing in of the way of state legislation that follows the promising examples of sexual education laws in states like Oregon? What are the factors? Is it money? Politics? Health Care? Discrimination? .How can North Carolina’s sexual education be reformed, and what can be done to fix these standing boundaries that are preventing citizens from receiving comprehensive sexual education?
One of the factors that has contributed to poor sexual education for youths is the availability of funding. North Carolina is the fifth worst in the U.S. at providing educational spending in their public-school systems.8 The sexual education taught reflects funding available for the resulting programs. For example, in North Carolina, 42 percent of adolescents reported being taught the twenty critical sexual education topics, yet 92 percent of North Carolina students have been taught abstinence. North Carolina receives $8,830,718 in sexual health resources, organizations, and sexual education, but a third, or nearly $3 million of that money is spent on funding for abstinence-only education.9 Spending a significant portion of sexual education money on abstinence programs is ineffective, because according to Guttmacher Institute, 60 percent of students have already been involved in sexual intercourse by the time sexual education is taught in public schools.10
Abstinence-only programs have proven ineffective, so North Carolina is putting money towards more ineffective programs rather than programs geared for the health of students and resources for them. In contrast, according to SIECUS’s “Oregon’s state profile spending report,” Oregon spends only a quarter of North Carolina’s comparable three-million-dollar budget on abstinence-only programs, which are also tied into comprehensive programs.11 Oregon’s more proportional spending on comprehensive sexual education has led to more positive sexual health results, compared to North Carolina’s.
Another factor that directly relates to sexual education laws and legislation, and which affects the outcomes of youths’ sexual health, is politics. In North Carolina, the Republican Party controls both chambers of the state legislature, which means that conservative ideologies mostly inform the laws in North Carolina. Traditionally, conservative views on sexual education are focused on abstinence-only policies that are in line with restrictions of women’s access to sexual health care and pro-life views. According to SIECUS’s “North Carolina State Profile,” by law the state requires sexual education and must include “reproductive health and safety education” beginning in seventh grade.12 In addition, such instruction must teach “that abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school-age children,” and “that a mutually faithful, monogamous, heterosexual relationship in the context of marriage is the best lifelong means of avoiding [STIs], including HIV/AIDS.”13 This curriculum directly reflects the conservative policies of the Republican party in North Carolina, which has resulted in the ongoing “othering” of LGBTQ persons, as well as promoting ineffective and incorrect sexual education teachings.
Health care is another factor that either limits or enhances sexual education in states. The availability of effective and helpful reproductive health care for women depends on the area. If sexual education is providing information on sexual health resources, but there are no reproductive and sexual health care providers or financial accessibility, it is hard for even sexually educated people to receive the resources they need. In addition to its sexual education, Oregon offers free sexual health care, including birth control and abortions, if someone qualifies for financial help. This policy ensures underprivileged communities have access to sexual health resources. In contrast, North Carolina does not offer free access to reproductive health care, making those without health insurance or health insurance covering women’s reproductive care unable to receive the care they need affordably. This lack of health care availability also prohibits those who are sexually informed from getting help. More rural areas have less reproductive health care centers— in North Carolina, Planned Parenthoods are mostly in populated areas, forcing more underprivileged communities to go to further lengths to receive care.
Societal factors like discrimination also play a big role in women’s reproductive care and sexual health. Women of color are disproportionately affected by poor health care options. According to scholars Ritchwood, Luque, Coakley, Wynn, and Corbie-Smith, in their article “Understanding African-American youth and adult perspectives on sex education in rural North Carolina,” there are higher rates of teen pregnancy and STIs in communities of color, as well as an elevated risk for poor sexual health outcomes in rural North Carolina for primarily African-American communities.14 Thus, it is evident that resources in underprivileged communities are very limited. Reproductive health care clinics for women are primarily located in white affluent areas. Policies focused on free sexual health care, more available sexual health care, and comprehensive sexual education for underprivileged communities will help to improve these statistics.
Comprehensive sexual education is something that is deprived from so many of North Carolina citizens, as well as many Americans. US laws and legislation must be updated, and must cover all pertinent areas of sexual education. Requiring correct and comprehensive sexual education is the first major step towards getting people properly educated and informed on sexual health matters.
Requiring sexual education curriculums to cover LGBTQ+ information and inclusivity, consent, and revising curriculums to exclude “abstinence-only” teaching as well as offering age-appropriate learning are strong first steps toward better sexual education nationwide. The United States needs to provide proper training to teachers covering sexual education, or otherwise use outside resources to teach sexual education. There also should be better state funding of sexual education, especially concerning the funding of sexual education in rural areas and communities. Making sexual health care more available to the public is crucial for communities and people’s wellbeing.
Lastly, politics control the funding in education, so increased participation and informed voting regarding sexual health legislation will improve health and wellbeing of communities, and thus is important for improving sexual education and the overall health of citizens.
The implications of this essay’s research are that there are negative effects in all communities from poor sexual education. Through the compiled research, the major role that early sexual education has in preventing systemic issues that are amplified by financial and gendered inequality, homophobia, and racism, is thus recognizable. Early sexual education is proven to help with the overall health and wellbeing of communities. To further investigate this topic, a look at the rural areas and sexual education would be needed, because there were a lot of gaps in scientific research regarding many rural areas. Discovering and learning more about the sexual education in these areas, as well as how to improve sexual health statistics positively in these areas would add context and emphasis to all the factors that go into having comprehensive sexual education for all Americans.
“Federally Funded Sex Education: Strengthening and Expanding Evidence-Based Programs.” Guttmacher Institute, 22 Mar. 2022. https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/sex-education.
Miller, Elizabeth. “Oregon’s New Sex Ed Curriculum Has More than Just Birds and Bees.”
ShapeOpb, OPB, 3 June 2020, https://www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-school-sex-education-consent-gender- expression/.
“North Carolina State Profile.” SIECUS, 29 Mar. 2021. https://siecus.org/state_profile/north-carolina-fy21%1fstate-profile.
“North Carolina—SIECUS.” SIECUS Public Policy North Carolina State Profile, 2003, https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/NORTH-CAROLINA09.pdf.
Oregon – SIECUS. 2016, https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/OREGON-FY16.pdf.
“Oregon State Profile.” SIECUS, 21 May 2021, https://siecus.org/state_profile/oregon-state-profile/.
“Party Control of North Carolina State Government.” Ballotpedia, https://ballotpedia.org/Party_control_of_North_Carolina_state_government.
Planned Parenthood (n.d.). “What is Sex Education? Sex Ed Definition and Q&A.” Retrieved May 2, 2022, from https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/for-educators/what-sex-education.
“Some of North Carolina’s STD Rates Higher than the National Average and Still on the Rise.” ABC11 Raleigh-Durham, WTVD-TV, 9 Oct. 2019, https://abc11.com/std- cases-gonorrhea-syphilis-chlamydia/5605942/.
Ritchwood, T.D., Luque J.S., Coakley, T.M., Wynn, M., & Corbie-Smith, G. (2020). “Understanding African American youth and adult perspectives on sex education in rural North Carolina.” Sex Education, 20(6), 612-626. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/14681811.2019.1708715.
“Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute, 9 Mar. 2022, https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education.
Shift NC. “Rising STI Rates Hit Young People Hard | SHIFT NC.” https://www.shiftnc.org/spotlight-story/rising-sti-rates-hit-young-people-hard.
SIECUS. “North Carolina State Profile Report,” 2013, SIECUS, https://siecus.org/wp- content/uploads/2015/03/NORTH-CAROLINA-FINAL-FY-13.pdf.