Let's Talk About Sex...Ed


Comprehensive sexuality education refers to sequential learning between grades K-12, where young people are building education and skills related to medically-accurate and scientific topics that are age, developmentally, and culturally appropriate and related to a host of sexual health issues. These issues include human development, healthy relationships, communication, pregnancy and reproduction, HIV and STD prevention, and sexual health and behaviors, including abstinence. The goal of sex education is to equip young people with the skills and knowledge they need to live sexually healthy lives. So why is it such a contentious battleground in the U.S.? Jesse Boyer with the Guttmacher Institute talks to us about sex education across the country.

There are two types of sex education programs in the U.S.: Comprehensive sex education and abstinence only programs. Abstinence only programs differ from sex-education programs in that the goal is to promote a single course of preventing and avoiding sexual activity until marriage. They often are fear and shame-based as opposed to building comfort and skills around one’s own sexuality.

Decades worth of research shows that abstinence only programs not only are ineffective but often times harmful to young people due to stigma, shame and fear-based content. On the other hand, young people that take part in programs that include a more comprehensive view of sexuality (including education on contraception and healthy relationships) tend to wait longer to have sex and are more likely to use methods of contraception, like birth control or condoms.

The efficacy and outcomes of sex education are difficult to measure, but we have seen that sex education programs are more likely to improve student’s educational outcomes, allow students to build healthier relationships, reduce sexual abuse and violence, and improve young people’s use of contraception. In terms of abstinence only programs, there may be short-term blips of abstinence, but in the long term, abstinence only programs are ineffective and harmful.

Whether a student has access to comprehensive sex education versus abstinence only education depends on teachers, principals, type of school (private, public, religious, etc.), school districts, state-mandated laws and federal laws. There is no standard sex education statute at the state level. To date, only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, and only 13 of those states require that information to be medically accurate. Many states have ‘if, then,’ laws- if schools are implementing a sex education program, then they are mandated to have certain requirements. 27 states require that if there is sex education being taught in schools, then abstinence must be stressed. 18 states and the District of Columbia require information on contraception in sex education.

Where do sex education requirements come from? Follow the bread crumbs back to the Department of Health and Human Services. There is no dedicated funding for comprehensive sex education or sex education itself, but there are funded programs that seek to prevent unintended pregnancy and prevent HIV and other STI’s among adolescents. These programs are the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP) and the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). At the school-level, only less than 40% of U.S. public high schools are providing the 19 critical sex education components (as named by the CDC), and the rate is lower middle schools (14%).

In the U.S. Congress, sex education is an increasingly partisan issue. There have been particular attacks against the TPPP- the current administration is attempting to dismantle it and divert the emphasis of the program to abstinence only. While there is no federal funding for comprehensive sex education programs, 2.1 billion dollars have been spent on abstinence only education programs- over thirty years of federal investment. These programs (rebranded as sexual-risk avoidance programs) is a state-based grant program and an entirely separate competitive grant funding stream for abstinence only, respectively.

Trump has appointed life-long abstinence only champions within the administration. Valerie Huber is the former head of the National Abstinence Education Association, otherwise known as ASCEND. Political appointees within the administration intend to direct funding for regular programs to abstinence only-based programs.

For more information on each state’s sex education requirements, check out Guttmacher Institute’s website.

Links from this episode
Guttmacher Institute
Guttmacher Facebook
Guttmacher Twitter
Information on Sexual Risk Avoidance Programs
Information on Abstinence Only Programs
Information on Teen Pregnancy Prevention and Contraception

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