Is the US failing at sex education?

Original blog post appeared on LOLA’s Blog: The Broadcast  on 


Is the US failing at sex education?

By Melisa Garber-Browne

People are usually shocked when I tell them I’m a sex education teacher. I try to picture just what they imagine my day-to-day must look like as they stare back at me wide-eyed, some totally impressed and others utterly perplexed. Their expressions vary, but I usually attribute their reactions to their personal sex ed experiences, which determines whether or not they immediately jump to a mental image of me holding a condom in one hand and a banana in the other.

The truth is, most people have no idea what I do. Saying “I teach sex ed” doesn’t really explain much, since sex education can cover a wide assortment of topics taught in a variety of styles depending on the school and state. The reason for this diversity is that “sex education” actually has a different definition in every state.

Sex ed for all? Not so much…
First off, it’s important to understand that there is no federal mandate for sex education, meaning that it is up to individual states to decide whether or not they want to require schools to teach this subject. It is also up to each state to choose the method, curriculum, and length of the education provided. Some states may choose to hire outside organizations to come in and teach their students the specified material, while others may assign this task to existing science or physical education teachers. There are also states that require teachers be given appropriate training and materials that have been approved by the local board of education.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, currently, 36 states and D.C. mandate that HIV and/or sex education be taught in schools. Although 22 of those states, as well as DC, provide both forms of education, that leaves 12 states that solely provide HIV education and can do so without having to specify prevention methods like using condoms or getting tested. It’s also worth mentioning that even if you do live in a state that provides HIV or sex education, parents can still opt-out their child from participating.

No sex for you!
Whether or not they teach HIV or sex education, most states (39 to be exact) require that information on abstinence be provided to students. This means there are more schools teaching how to refrain from having sex altogether than teaching about safe sex practices and consent. This is because some states choose to implement federally-funded abstinence-only education programs that focus primarily on preventing teens from engaging in any sexual activity before marriage. In these abstinence-only programs teachers cannot promote contraceptive use and some curricula even go as far as to include virginity pledges where adolescents promise to abstain from sex until marriage.

While the assumption is that these programs will lower teen pregnancy and STI rates, research has shown them to be largely ineffective. One studyindicated that there was a higher average teen pregnancy and birth rate in states that more strongly emphasized abstinence than in states that taught comprehensive sex education. Some abstinence-only curricula have even been evaluated and shown to include medically-inaccurate information on contraceptive failure rates, abortion, and sexually transmitted infections, stating things like “HIV can pass through a condom because the latex is porous.”

As for the 20 states that require accurate information on condoms be provided, even they may be banned from providing demonstrations on how to properly use them. Only last year did New York City start allowing condom demonstrations in public schools.

Horrified yet? Don’t worry, plenty of us are trying to change this! Even President Obama has already proposed an increase in funding for medically-accurate and age-appropriate sex education for the next fiscal year, as well as cutting the funding for abstinence-only education.

So what should we be teaching?
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most effective form of sex education is a comprehensive curriculum that goes beyond preventing diseases or conception. These programs should also cover healthy relationships, communication skills, bodily autonomy, andpleasure. It should also be inclusive with language relevant to people of all genders and sexual orientations, as well as information that applies to people who identify as asexual or gender variant. It should be sex-positive and body-positive, void of shame and policing.

This might seem like a tall order, but there are already great resources out there, like Advocates for Youth’s Sex Ed Resource Center, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States’s (SIECUS) online Sex Ed Library, and Planned Parenthood among others. There are also plenty more organizations that are fighting for more comprehensive sex education. Interested? You can see a full list here.

Are things that bad?
Some of you may be wondering if this is even the schools’ responsibility. Shouldn’t parents be having these conversations with their kids? And are things that bad that we have to make condoms readily available to teens?

The truth is that adolescents are waiting longer to have sex and teen pregnancy rates in the US are at an all-time low. Nevertheless, our rates are the highest of the industrialized world; three times that of Germany and France, and over four times that of the Netherlands. Additionally, while youth (between the ages of 15-24) make up only 25% of the sexually-active population, they account for half of all new sexually transmitted infectionsin the US.

Parents should definitely be talking to their children about these topics, andthe majority actually do. But they also want their kids to be taught this information in school. Moreover, we can attribute the decline in teen pregnancy rates to the increase in contraceptive use, further emphasizing the need to include this information in sex ed programs.

When I say “I teach sex ed,” I mean that I teach my students that their bodies are beautiful and that they are entitled to sexual rights. My hope is that beyond the diagrams of the clitoris and pictures of dental dams, my students are actually absorbing deeper life lessons in the classroom, like there’s no shame in asking these questions and that they are entitled to this knowledge.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s