The Nuanced Push for American Sex Education

According to the Sexuality and Information Council of the United States, only 38 percent of high schools and 14 percent of middle schools across the country teach all 19 topics identified as critical for sex education by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite research demonstrating the health benefits of comprehensive sex education that dates back to the 1980s and even earlier, abstinence-only curricula have historically been the federal go-to, establishing a dichotomy between what the science reveals and what American classrooms have the funds to teach. While federal barriers may complicate the conversation around sex education, many advocates and legislators are working tirelessly to ensure comprehensive sex education. When the need for comprehensive sex education is explained, especially by young people who feel its impact the most, the public tends to listen, even in areas where resistance to sex ed is strong.

In truth, sex education in America is not as controversial as it seems. In fact, public opinion overwhelmingly supports sex education. But while most Americans believe in sex education, Americans do not all agree on the best way to do it. And, as far as experts are concerned, sex education is not practiced across the country the way it should be.

At the federal level, certain initiatives and politicians have tried and failed to regulate sex education. Given the variety of opinions and sensitivities around the once taboo topic of sex, sex-ed legislation works best when approached at the state or local level, as demonstrated in states such as Colorado, Illinois, Texas, and Washington.

By the Numbers

The fight for sex ed gets complicated because sex is complicated. But while sex may be complicated, the American desire for education is not. When America argues over sex ed, the disagreement is never really about the need to educate our children, but rather about the topics of politics, religion, sexuality, and gender that are all inherently linked to sex. 

For this reason, as Jennifer Driver, vice president of policy and strategic partnerships at SIECUS  told the HPR, successful advocates for sex ed provide a nuanced, gradual, “half-baked approach” to sex education.

Historically, there has been a major gap between public opinion and public policy with regard to sex education. According to a study by NARAL Pro-Choice America, “the public overwhelmingly supports age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education, yet anti-choice policymakers promote restrictive abstinence-only programs that censor information about contraception and STD/HIV prevention strategies.” 

“Sex education is incredibly popular,” explained Dr. Sara Flowers, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood, who holds a doctorate in Public Health. “Whether looking at political beliefs, geographics, socioeconomic status, or demographics, we have seen through likely voter surveys that there’s resounding support for sex education across the country. There’s this stereotype that sex ed is controversial, but it really isn’t. There’s resounding support for sex ed.”

And, according to NARAL, a 2012 survey demonstrated that 93 percent of adults and 87 percent of teens deem it important to receive information about both abstinence and contraception. For Americans, it cannot just be one or the other.

A Planned Parenthood study from 2014 also demonstrates that Americans overwhelmingly support sex education, with over 90 percent of parents reporting that it is important to have sex ed in middle and high school. These parents advocated for comprehensive sex ed, saying that sex ed should incoporate topics including birth control, STDs, healthy versus unhealthy relationships, abstinence, and sexual orientation. According to these statistics, abstinence-only sex ed is insufficient. 

Abstinence-Only, and a Look at the Resistance 

But as mentioned, federal policies have historically favored abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, and these programs have been popular across the aisle. The federal government has allocated over $2 billion to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs since 1982. In particular, the Clinton administration heavily supported these programs, and even allocated $250 million for them. Although they came to an intermittent pause in 2010, abstinence-only programs have again seen the light of day with the Trump-Pence administration.  

Beyond the aforementioned abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, it is critical to note that there has always been and still is a resistance movement to sex education in general. Across time, resistance to sex education has arisen in communities with a tradition of little sex education, and which thus become shocked at the introduction of comprehensive sex ed.

“There’s a very strong-but-small movement against sex and sexuality. That movement is very well-funded and has done a successful job of getting people to have doubts about sexual education and [believe] that if you provide sexuality education, young people are more likely to be sexually active. But that is inaccurate info,” Tamara Kreanin, director of the Population and Reproductive Health Program from the Packard Foundation and former executive director of Women and Population at the United Nations Foundation, told the HPR.

From Kreanin’s experience, when advocating for sex education in school districts where sex education had previously faltered — for example, a community on the border in Texas — “ultimately what had the major impact was the young people from the school themselves speaking out and talking about how important comprehensive sex education is. They talked about their peers getting pregnant and syphilis and HIV, and I think what ended up having the biggest impact was the voice of the students,” she said.

The Role of Third-Party Organizations

There is no denying that it has been difficult to implement comprehensive sex ed in American schools. As a result, third-party organizations and groups such as Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the Unitarian Church have stepped in to offer comphrensive sex education outside of the classroom while simultaneously advocating for better sex ed within schools. 

For example, Planned Parenthood, the largest sex-ed provider in the country, not only delivers its own sex-ed workshops and online information, but also develops relationships with schools to build school specific sex-ed curricula. Other groups that are similarly nonpartisan and geographically wide-reaching, such as the Unitarian Church, have created their own sex-ed curricula. The Unitarian Church’s comprehensive sex-ed cirriculum, Our Whole Lives, is one of the most well-regarded in the country. 

These third-party organizations who supplement and foster sex ed in America’s schools have made major headway in the push for comprehensive sexual education.“We recognize sex ed in schools as an incredible opportunity because young people are in schools,” Flowers told the HPR. “But it’s important to understand that sex ed in schools is not the only place where sex education happens neither historically nor currently. It’s always been a partnership in schools and out-of-school spaces where sex education happens.”

Kreanin agreed with Flowers. “It’s important to think of sex education from three different lenses,” she told the HPR. “In schools, out of the school setting, whether that’s an afterschool setting or a safe community, and online. In an ideal world, you have all three,” she said.

Keeping It Close To Home: State Level and Local Policies

While it may be easy to keep after-school and online curricula similar across state lines, it proves much harder to do so in public schools. When it comes to sex ed in schools, individual states, and often even individual districts, have the ability to implement their own curricula — or not incorporate sex ed at all. In recent years, many advocacy groups and state level governments have made concerted pushes to improve their commitment to comprehensive sex-ed curricula in public schools. 

“There’s definitely a pathway to legislation for sex ed at the state level,” Driver told the HPR. “We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to improve the education system and sex ed is a component. In science classes, there’s a foundation you need … The same thing needs to happen with sex ed. There needs to be a focused foundation setting in K-5 that introduces what it means to be a good friend and how to have strong friendships and family relationships.” Driver emphasized that students can move into much stronger conversations about sex ed after, and only after, that foundation is set. Comphrensive sex-ed curriculums are lauded by experts because they incorporate foundation setting and a focus on relationship building before launching into higher-level material.

State legislators are latching on to the push for comprehensive sex ed too. Successful campaigns for state-level comprehensive sex-ed legislation have happened across the country, with notable crusades in Colorado, Illinois, Texas, and Washington. Although Colorado public schools are still not required to teach sex ed, Colorado abides by local control laws. This means that if districts decide to teach sex ed at all, they have the ability to choose their own sex-ed curriculum. Experts praise Colorado’s local efforts and commend a new state law signed by Governor Jared Polis last May, which mandates that if schools are to teach sex ed, they must teach a comprehensive curriculum that includes conversations around consent. The bill also gives $1 million to fund sex-ed grants in schools and districts; these grants will be overseen by a parent representative and a youth reprenstative, as well as someone to represent students of color. 

Illinois has followed a very similar path and also now requires that when sex ed is taught, it is comprehensive. This means it must include conversations around healthy relationships and consent. Meanwhile, policymakers in Texas, a state where abstinence-only sex ed has been a prescribed norm for the past 20 years and the fervent anti-sex-ed movement has a strong foothold, have suggested reworking state law to incorporate conversations about contraceptives, healthy relationships, and consent as well. And in Washington, while a proposed mandatory sex-ed bill failed last April, policymakers continue to fight for comprehensive state wide sexual education. The bill’s passage through the state senate demonstrates the progress made by Washington’s sex-ed advocates.

And At The Federal Level …

In addition to advocating for policy at the state level, Driver told the HPR that her organization continues to push for two priority bills at the federal level. One of these bills is the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), which “would be the first ever comprehensive sex-ed bill,” Driver said. The other is the Youth Access to Sexual Health Services Act, sponsored by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), which would ensure access to services particularly for LGBTQ youth and communities of color. 

In prioritizing sex ed at the federal level, Driver said that society must recognize sex ed’s impact on many other social issues: “Sex ed links to overall education. It links to reducing trans- and homophobia and reducing sexual assault. If we were to prioritize and recognize the connection to so many other social issues it would be easier. Our downfall is that people see sex ed and see a 6 to12-week curriculum and then we’re done, but that’s not sex ed. It may be a curriculum and more.”

When discussing sex education in America in 2020, advocates need to make clear that sex education has support across parties and geographic lines, and that sex education is, after all, just education. All in all, sex education is just “responding to an inextricable part of our humanity,” said Driver. “There are real opportunities in this field to think about how we scaffold and integrate sex ed into adulthood. The knowledge and skills of sex ed provide and support relationships with others.”

Image Credit: Unsplash/Sylvie Tittel

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