Sex Ed in the US
September 18 2021
Sex is an uncomfortable topic for many people and teaching or learning about it can cause plenty of giggling and blushing at best, or at worst, under the wrong circumstances, shame and fear.
But that doesn't change the fact that young people need to learn about sex. In fact, the discomfort that comes with discussing sex is just one of the many reasons why it should be taught and discussed more openly in families and schools.
Contrary to the teachings of many schools and religious organizations in the USA, sex is not just about bearing children and continuing the ancient edict of "go forth and multiply". Sex is about pleasure, love, connection and closeness, and is an essential part of human physical and mental health. Sexual activity is something that should be taught about from a place of health and safety, not taboo and shame. Young people should be able to make their decisions regarding sex without fear, but with extensive knowledge of the possible threats to their wellbeing, as well as the steps they can take to avoid these consequences.
Sexual education is an essential part of raising a child and leaving it up to individual parents is not the solution, as the information should be standardized and comprehensive. Without a medically accurate knowledge of how their bodies work, teenagers are completely unequipped to deal with the world of sex, and that is a world that is thrown at them every single day in the form of media advertising. From clothing advertisements to music videos, sex is used to sell a vast majority of products and services on the market today, and understanding sex is the only way young people can safely make decisions regarding their own sex lives. Teaching comprehensive sex ed in school is an absolute necessity, and should never be up for discussion, but in the USA it is.
In America today, individual states are allowed to make up their own laws regarding sexual education, and within that, the school districts are left to decide the hows and whens of their individual curriculum. That is one of the Nation's greatest mistakes when it comes to the health and wellbeing of its adolescent citizens. According to Planned Parenthood 1, a large-scale survey shows that a vast majority of parents support sex education in middle or high school, including important subjects such as contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. Yet, figures show that a very small proportion of America's teens are receiving a proper education regarding their sexual health.
Despite being supported by organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, sex ed is only mandated in 24 states and DC, although 34 states do mandate some education about HIV. Within those 24 states that require some form of sexual education, only 13 of them insist on it being medically accurate 2 and only 8 have a comprehensive sex-ed curriculum. Only 18 states and DC mandate that some information on contraception must be included in sexual education courses. The CDC recommends a 16 topic course for schools to implement, yet fewer than 50% of American high schools and only 20% of middle schools teach all of them.
The numbers of teenagers who are experimenting with sex for the first time before receiving any education about it, and with no idea of the risks, are rising rapidly. Natalie Blanton 3 of the University of Utah states that the majority of her students are sexually active, yet most of those report never having had a course in sex ed. They say that they learn about sex from talking to friends, reading social media, and finding explicit content online. Blanton claims that many of her students have discussed their distress with her, at their complete lack of basic understanding.
Around 750,000 teen pregnancies are occurring in the USA each year and about a quarter of those end in abortions. Out of 20 million new STD cases recorded annually, 50% of those tend to occur in teens and young adults under the age of 25. Among all its first world peers, America has the highest rates of teen pregnancies, abortion and STDs 3, and that is clear proof that the education system is failing American children.
Within the states that do mandate or encourage some form of sexual education, there tend to be 3 types of courses. Comprehensive courses are seldom mandated and not offered regularly enough, and yet areas that do focus on this option show significantly lower rates of unwanted pregnancies, abortion and STDs. Abstinence-Only courses 4, or sexual risk avoidance programs, teach teenagers that there is no safe or moral choice but to remain a virgin until marriage. They also do not include any information regarding contraception, healthy sexual relationships, or the dangers of STDs. Abstinence plus courses urge teenagers to abstain from sex until marriage but do offer some education regarding the possible consequences of becoming sexually active.
Very few school sex-ed courses include any information regarding alternative sexual orientations, and among those that do, many teach children that being LGBTQ is wrong, or even evil. This practice disregards a significant proportion of the adolescent population and causes those children to hide their feelings and their lifestyles. This often leads to them behaving in a risky manner in an attempt to try and find their own way. In a survey taken in 2019, only 8.2% of students claimed to have received sexual education that included information on LGBTQ orientations 5.
Some of the states which do not mandate any sexual education, but insist that abstinence must be taught if any sex ed is to be offered at all, are Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, and unsurprisingly, these 5 states all fall in the top 10 for live births in teenage girls 4. The following graph shows teen birth rates in the USA in 2019 by state.
Teenage births per 1000 women between 15-19 years old
Data source: Power To Decide 6.
Not only do the states which adhere to the abstinence-only teaching method have the highest rates of teen pregnancies, but they also have the highest rates of STDs reported among teenagers in the United States . All of this goes to show that educating young people about sex is an essential part of raising them to make safe and informed decisions regarding their sex lives and sexuality.
The vast amount of media that young people consume today, and the overwhelming proportion of which that is overtly sexual, means that teenagers are very likely to experiment sexually before the ages that older people would deem appropriate. Studies show that by the age of 18, 50% of American teenagers will have had sex, with or without any education on the topic.
Rather than trying to hide all knowledge about sex from the younger generations, people in positions of authority should be sharing as much of it as possible with the teens in their charge. This will arm the younger generations with knowledge to safely enjoy the pleasure of sex, plan when and how to start a family (if they wish to do so), protect themselves from STDs, and overall remove the fear, shame and taboo that surrounds these topics among large portions of the American population.
- Planned Parenthood. (2019). Planned Parenthood. Plannedparenthood.org. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/for-educators/whats-state-sex-education-us
- USC Department of Nursing. (2017, September 18). America’s Sex Education: How We Are Failing Our Students. Usc.edu. https://nursing.usc.edu/blog/americas-sex-education/
- Blanton, N. (2019, October 10). Why Sex Education in the United States Needs an Update and How to Do It. Scholars Strategy Network. https://scholars.org/contribution/why-sex-education-united-states-needs-update-and-how-do-it
- World Population Review. (n.d.). Abstinence Only Education States 2021. Worldpopulationreview.com. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/abstinence-only-education-states
- vanKoot, B. (2019, June 24). This Is What Sex Ed Looks Like Across the Country. Esquire; Esquire. https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/sex/a27663524/sex-edcuation-in-america-state-by-state-1559243998/
- Power to Decide. (n.d.). Teen Birth Rate Comparison, 2019. Powertodecide.org. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://powertodecide.org/what-we-do/information/national-state-data/teen-birth-rate