Sex education in the United States needs urgent reform

Updated: Jul 6

Throughout the recent history of the United States, the sex education policy has been a topic of heated debate. People argued over whether it should be taught at all, to the approaches that should be taken, to the amount of funding that should be dedicated to the subject.

For most of American history, the topic was ignored by American schools, and the responsibility of “the talk” was left up to parents on an individual basis. However, beginning in the 1960s, the sharp increase in “nonmarital adolescent pregnancy” was a cause for concern for many parents, and the lack of sex education was made even more apparent during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

This led to a push to instill some form of sex education in American schools, though the form that this takes depends on the school system. The two most common forms of sex education in America are abstinence-only training, and comprehensive sex education.

Abstinence-only encourages students to not engage in any sexual practices until marriage, and gives low levels of information about STIs, pregnancies, the function of sexual organs and gives very little information about birth control methods and devices besides citing them as ineffective.

Comprehensive sex education (CSE) focuses more on giving a complete set of information around sexual practices. It discusses STIs, methods to avoid them and how to avoid pregnancy in the case of sexual activity.

Over the course of their respective inclusion in the American school curriculum, CSE has been observed to be more effective. A study in 2002 showed that students who received CSE education as opposed to abstinence-only were far less likely to have a pregnancy in their teenage years. Additionally, the rates of teen pregnancy were not significantly different between students who received abstinence-only education and students who received no sex education at all.

This raises the question: is sex education in the United States doing what it is supposed to do? The answer, quite simply, is no.

In a 2000 study, the United States was found to have the highest incidence of STI infection among 16 developed countries, all with sex education programs. The only countries that outstripped the United States in terms of STI incidence were the Russian Federation and Romania.

Despite being 25 percent of the sexually active population, 15 to 25-year-olds represent almost half of STI infections in the United States. CSE, on the other hand, has been shown to almost universally have positive results, with students that participated in CSE education having lowered rates of teenage pregnancy and STI incidence.

Despite this, from the early 1990’s to the late 2000s, education around birth control declined from an average of 84 percent to only 66 percent a remarkable slide for a period where progress was supposed to be made.

According to these weaknesses, and the lack of such in other developed nations, the United States must adjust their model of what constitutes sex education, as the current model, according to the various statistics cited above, does not seem adequate.

Among the various changes that must be made, one of the most important things to consider is the purpose of sex education. Both abstinence-only programs and comprehensive sex education programs are intended to reduce teen pregnancy and the spread of STIs. This means that a successful sex education program should have a statistically significant impact on teen pregnancies and STI incidence for it to be considered effective.

Federal funding does not allow support for comprehensive sex education programs. There has been an 85 million dollar budget approved in 2016 to fund abstinence-only programs exclusively, despite President Obama’s objections to the program under concerns that abstinence-only programs withhold essential information about birth control and STI safety measures.

Much of the backlash against comprehensive sex education has come from parties claiming that teaching adolescents about safe sex practices will lead to them becoming sexually active sooner, however there has been no evidence to suggest that is the case.

There have been slight efforts from the government to move beyond abstinence-only programs, including some teen pregnancy prevention programs, but these programs still actively advocate for abstinence and do little to support safe sex practices. In fact, abstinence-only programs do almost nothing to reduce sexual risk behaviors or improve sexual health outcomes as opposed to the well-documented effectiveness of comprehensive sex education.

United States high school courses require an average of 6.2 hours of sexual education instruction, and 87 percent of schools allow parents to exclude their children from that instruction, depriving them of what little information they would be able to receive about these essential issues, and possibly risking their health.

It is additionally believed that these flawed practices are fueled by the seemingly constant American debate about the morality of premarital and extramarital sexual activity, mainly stemming from religious beliefs and outdated cultural norms. These beliefs result in the spread of misinformation to parents about the benefits and purpose of sex education programs, with many parents believing that comprehensive sex education programs will lead to an earlier start to sexual activity for their children.

This has led to a decline in information about contraception and other safe sex measures over the course of the late 2000s and early 2010s. These declines in knowledge were focused in nonmetropolitan, mostly rural areas, whereas the decline in metropolitan areas was not as strong and, in some cases, nonexistent.

This shows the purpose of sex education as defined by the programs themselves, to reduce teen pregnancy and STI incidence, is minimally impacted by no sex education and abstinence-only programs, and only comprehensive sex education actually achieves the goals of sex education, despite the disparity in federal funding.

One of the areas in which sex education in the United States has been most deficient is in addressing the needs of LBGT+ teens. Only eight states mandate that non-heterosexual sexual orientations are acknowledged, much less spend time teaching about the specific needs and difficulties those students have and face.

In most studies about sex education curricula, students of the LGBT+ community are not acknowledged because their opinions and experiences are not a part of the curricula being questioned, including an influential 2008 study that disregarded all its LGBT+ participants. One of the main questions this raises is the disparities around other social groups when it comes to sex education.

In Kohler’s study, it was found that people’s socioeconomic status and place of residence affected the quality of sex education they received. For example, people who are a part of low-income non-intact families in rural areas tended to receive no sex education. Abstinence-only education was received by low-to-moderate income people and people of color. Lastly, recipients of comprehensive sex education tended to be white, higher-income, and in wealthy or urban areas.

This inequality is reflected in many other facets of American society, but its impact on sex education is particularly destructive, because the impacts of poor sex education on communities of color fuel rhetoric and stereotypes about those communities.

As a part of receiving abstinence-only or no sex education, teen pregnancy rates and STI incidence is higher in communities of color, with women of color having STI incidence almost four times as high as their white peers, an additional injustice in a system fraught with inequality.

Many of the groups that are apprehensive towards comprehensive sex education cite several complaints with the content of the curriculum. One of the primary issues that are taken with this type of program is the belief that students who are recipients of comprehensive sex education will begin sexual activity earlier than their peers without sex education or with abstinence-only education.

However, a recent study showed that comprehensive sex education students begin vaginal intercourse later than their peers, showing that this concern is unfounded. Between abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education programs, there is slight evidence showing them both to lead to a later “sexual debut” as opposed to no sex education at all.

In a small aside, there has been an overall reduction in teen pregnancy rates and STI incidence in recent years. Experts account this trend towards a greater use of the internet for teens when it comes to information about condoms and birth control.

The internet acts as informal sex education where people who do have the appropriate information can share it with students who may be disadvantaged by their school system or their parents when it comes to their sexual education. While any reduction in these statistics is one to be welcomed, internet discourse should not be considered a viable replacement for formalized sex education from trained professionals.

Comprehensive sex education has been proven through a multitude of studies to be superior to abstinence-only education, with a battery of supportive evidence that the latter method simply does not have. In addition to that, parents across the nation have expressed their support for CSE, with the only subgroups that fell on the side of abstinence-only being “very conservative” parents and parents of students in “non-public schools.”

Even a majority of born-again and fundamentalist Christians now support CSE, contradicting the popular narrative that abstinence-only programs continue to be perpetrated throughout the American school system due to support from extremely religious lobbyists and pundits. In addition to the conservatives and non-public school parents, people who cite morally absolutist values around abstinence and sex also support abstinence-only education and actively decry CSE.

Some of the arguments made by these groups include the idea that while formalized sex education is important, there is an important parental role in sex education, to fill in the more “sensitive” areas of this controversial topic. However, a recent study found that while parents do contribute a trace amount to sex education, they overwhelmingly fail to fill in the gaps left by abstinence-only education, making this argument fruitless.

These three groups make up the abstinence-only lobby and have successfully prevented federal funding of CSE for decades due to their well-funded and deeply influential nature. Despite the support from these groups, there is still no evidentiary basis for abstinence-only education, and studies continue to be published with data in support of the efficacy of CSE.

This makes the potency of the evidence continually more difficult for the abstinence-only lobby to deny. The entirety of the state of sex education in the United States can be improved with an outpouring of federal and state resources away from abstinence-only education and towards CSE curriculum which has been shown again and again to aid in achieving the goal of sex education, reducing teen pregnancies and STI incidence.

Jacob Levitt (Wheelock ’22) is from Washington, D.C. He majors in social studies education.

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