High School Sex Education Isn't Cutting It. Here's What We Need to Do.

Most American teenagers in the public school system can hardly recall the sex education program they had to sit through in health class. A significant reason for that is the inefficacy of abstinence only until marriage guidelines in sex ed programs. In the status quo, sex ed is hardly comprehensive; the national program focus on abstinence which is guaranteed to prevent pregnancies but stigmatizes alternative lifestyles and teen pregnancies.

Evidence gathered in American schools have concluded that the current curriculum has no positive effect on changing the age at which children become sexually active nor does it change their other behaviors. It withholds key information about alternative options to prevent pregnancy and the treatment options for sexually transmitted diseases. It papers over information that LGBT students see their straight peers given, leaving them often with a sense of confusion and questions about their lived experiences. It introduces discriminatory and derisive beliefs about young women who engage in sexual activities, which builds upon the culture of victim blaming and sexual discrimination. All of these issues have contributed to a culture of ignoring the miseducation of youth in our schools.

While many stalwarts in Congress and in local communities cite tradition, religion, and the health of the society as reasons for maintaining traditional sex education, change is necessary to correct the systemic misinformation of teens. To those critics who claim such education is better left to the families, proponents have argued that comprehensive sex ed should be a required school curriculum with the existing option to opt out. This is because comprehensive curriculum should be available to all, and public schools are a universal place to administer it. Furthermore, the role of the school is to prepare children for the real world, and comprehensive sex ed is both a necessary and applicable skill in life. Giving teens the tools to understand bodily autonomy, free choice, and healthy relationships is key to fostering self-aware and conscious adults.

To emphasize the necessity for action, Betsy Devos’s role in the Department of Education has seen crackdowns on sex education, and any proposed legislation along the lines of equitable sex ed is likely to be circumvented. Her policies regarding sexual assault and women’s rights have drawn criticism on college campuses, and she has upheld only allowing abstinence education to gain funding from the national budget. Furthermore, Valerie Huber’s appointment as overseer of several federal public health offices worries the public due to her former agenda as an advocate for abstinence only programs and a denier of the benefits of contraceptives. However, popular pressure and petitions from local communities can inspire grassroots protests to bring about change.

So why should everyone care? The continued denial of LGBT experiences from traditional sex ed curriculums is an invisible violence and spurs confusion in students about connecting their experiences and feelings with the curriculum set before them. The stigma surrounding those who are not abstinent is a form of psychological violence that shames girls into conforming with a set of social standards and creates a dissonance between their actions and their taught morals, which distracts from their educations. Ultimately, the abstinence education guidelines are ineffective and counterproductive as the platform used for ineffectual message could be utilized as a chance to provide widespread education about the holistic aspects of sex as teens.

Parents, children, and educators must turn their gazes to the National Sexuality Education Standard as a roadmap to comprehensive sex education. In identifying healthy practices, informed consent, and personal safety, the standards help to increase the autonomy of America’s youth. Research has shown that this alternative can curb teen pregnancy numbers in households regardless of socioeconomic status and decrease risk taking behavior. Training teachers to become better resources and aids in their community can take shape in implicit bias training, challenging the inherent stereotypes or believes they may have about abstinence. After all, school is the first place where students’ ideas and concepts of lifestyle are established. Doing away with anachronistic sex ed guidelines can be the first step in a safer and healthier future.