America Needs Better Comprehensive Sexual Education

The implementation of comprehensive sexual education is essential for ensuring the health and empowerment of the youth in a politically fragile environment.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

When I was 12 years old, my mother gave me a fresh copy of Cara Natterson’s The Care and Keeping of You 2: The Body Book for Older Kids. She sat me down at the dinner table with the book in hand and told me not to worry about body hair and what to do when I started menstruating. When I was 13, the internet and social media taught me about birth control and safe sex, and my friends helped me learn about sexual orientation and navigating romantic relationships. While my mother, friends, and the internet have all contributed to the awareness I have of my body and my identity, there remains a notable absence in the learning curve—school. The lack of comprehensive sexual education highlights the shortcomings of schools to provide essential knowledge and support to young people navigating the stressful period of adolescence. 

The implementation of comprehensive sexual education—better known as “sex- ed”—in schools first gained popularity between the 1960s through the 1980s in order to combat the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS.  Since then, the general consensus on sexual education is that the course educates adolescents about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and safe sex. However, comprehensive sexual education is intended to go beyond these topics, addressing everything from gender and sexual identity to concerns of diversity and relationships. The advantages of sexual education on health and human development include decreased rates of dating violence, reduced instances of unprotected sex, and a better understanding of how to support sexual health. In addition to these benefits, sexual education has been linked to the growth of social awareness, equality, and representation of topics related to sexual orientation and gender inequality, leading to decreased rates of homophobic bullying. Sexual education—similar to other subjects taught in school—extends beyond the classroom, allows young people to make smart, independent decisions, and is a means of empowerment for women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Polls on sexual education show the continuing demand for sexual education since 84% of parents support having sex ed taught in middle school and 96% support sexual education in high school. Despite the overwhelming majority in favor, the implementation of the course in schools varies based on state, with many traditionally conservative and religious states disapproving of the course. 39% states mandate some type of HIV education or sexual education in high school, and while some states only require STD education, others only require education regarding contraceptives. For example, Tennessee only mandates family life education programs if the teen pregnancy rate in a county exceeds 19.5%. On the other hand, California requires a full curriculum of sexual education in both high school and middle school. As a result, the sexual education that students are receiving can vary, with some limited to lessons on abstinence and diseases, thus neglecting the plethora of other life skills provided by a fully comprehensive sexual education. 

On top of the inconsistencies by state pertaining to the content and requirements of sexual education, only 18 states demand that the information provided is medically accurate. Therefore, many sexual education classes don’t meet the requirements that the CDC deems as “essential” and spread biased or outdated information to adolescents. While 37 states require information on abstinence to be taught in health classes, only 19 states require teaching about contraceptives. Abstinence-only education has been proven to be ineffective at preventing pregnancy and STIs because it’s unrealistic to expect all teenagers to choose not to have sex. Even though rates of teenage sex are decreasing, in 2021, 30% of teens reported engaging in sex at least once. 

Regardless if they do or do not engage in sex in high school, young people need the tools and information to engage in safe sex throughout both their adolescent and adult lives. In addition, in many states—even those that provide a more comprehensive curriculum—students are able to opt out of sexual education courses at their parents’ discretion. Whether it be for political or religious reasons, students who don’t attend sexual education classes don’t learn about important issues such as rape and consent. The lack of education on these important issues can carry into adulthood and result in increased rates of sexual assault. 

Comprehensive sexual education is becoming more vital with the events following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022. Since the momentous event, 14 states have banned abortion altogether. As political restrictions tighten on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, discussions and the sexual education curriculum are becoming limited. In Florida, the Don’t Say Gay Bill bans schools from teaching about gender and sexual orientation. Idaho and Mississippi both have abstinence-only policies, while North Dakota and Arkansas both use policies that stigmatize and discourage abortion. Due to this legislation, the purpose of sexual education is becoming increasingly preoccupied with politics than protecting the health and well-being of young people. These issues are only exacerbated by highly religious groups that protest outside abortion clinics and school boards, preventing educators from teaching topics including birth control, abortion, and about the LGBTQ+ community. However, sexual education should not be dependent on religious beliefs or political motives because people’s bodies and well-being should not be a topic up for debate. Yet, with the expansion of homophobic and restrictive legislation, this lack of thorough and equitable education endangers the mental health and safety of LGBTQ+ youth and women across the country, depriving them of the empowerment and equality that they deserve. 

Although efforts to restore Roe v. Wade are critical in regaining lost rights, mandating medically accurate comprehensive sexual education is key in the meantime to keep adolescents safe during this time when abortion laws are uncertain. The ban on abortion has led to an increased rate of dangerous self-induced or “back alley” abortions for women who can’t find legal abortion methods in their state. Adolescents are currently forced to give birth, and many educators worsen this by perpetuating the idea that abortions are dangerous when in reality,  abortions are safer than childbirth and allow many young women to make choices in their best interests. 

Now, more than ever, we need to stop ignoring the need for sexual education because social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram are not sufficient in providing a full education. Coming from a middle school where students started engaging in sexual behavior early, it was alarming to realize that sexual education was never taught or mentioned in my school. There was no one to teach body positivity, sexual awareness, or consent. Instead, the administration condemned and suspended 11 to 13 year-old students who were suspected of engaging in sexual behavior in school. As a result of this, I learned about sex and harm reduction through the generally negative experiences of my peers, which could’ve been avoided if the school offered sexual education. Even when I came to Stuyvesant and was exposed to a formal health class, most students were on their phones or talking with their friends in class. 

Students need to realize the importance of sexual education as politics begin to hinder their access to equitable sexual education and prevention methods. While Stuyvesant should work towards making health classes more engaging and developing a formal curriculum, students need to take sexual education seriously in order to prevent ignorant actions in adulthood and to gain a better understanding of their developing bodies and minds. Students should reflect on the quality of information they gain from their health classes and use their experiences to advocate for change in the New York State sexual education curriculum. For instance, my health teacher never touched upon topics such as anatomy, how to test for STDs, or LGBTQ+ relationships and identity—all topics vital to protecting youth both physically and emotionally. Educators should also stop framing sex in a negative light by avoiding the topic of sex itself and omitting information on how pleasure works or why people have sex.   

At the state level, New York State does not require a specific sexual education course and instead categorizes its standards under a broad set of Health Education requirements that only recommend lessons on bullying, HIV, health risks, and more. This vague and unenforced curriculum allows educators and schools to exclude necessary components of sexual education. Therefore, activists and educators must call for accurate, thorough, and unbiased education and work to enforce a specific, standardized curriculum so that every state is providing all the information adolescents need to stay safe. Public schools should mandate a separate sexual education provision so that every student knows about consent, sexual assault, body development, and other critical aspects of social and sexual interactions so that the youth are better equipped for the future. In addition,  people can support the many organizations that aim to re-empower women and the LGBTQ+ community by creating accessible sexual education curricula outside of schools and fighting against laws that limit comprehensive sexual education. Supporting these programs—such as the Teen Pregnancy Prevention and the Sexual Risk Avoidance Program—allows them to expand and be more accessible to youth across the country. Even so, public schools are the only method to guarantee all students equitably receive sexual education. 

May is Sexual Education For All Month—led by the Sexual Education Collaborative—and provides young people the opportunity to push back against efforts to restrict sexual education in public schools. However, the fight for fair access to sexual education doesn’t end here. We need to shed light on all the young people around the country that deserve accurate comprehensive education and are not receiving it. Reproductive and social rights and keeping the youth safe rely on the reimplementation of structured, comprehensive sexual education, because by teaching sexual education, we show our commitment to providing the youth with the knowledge that creates equality, guidance, and confidence.