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Sex Education: Why Does It Matter and How Can We Do Better?

In the middle of my freshman year of high school, I walked into second-period biology to find a condom sitting on my desk. Around me, my classmates poked tentatively at the little black packages. Some laughed, some tried to hide them under binders and notebooks, some decided to ignore them entirely. The arrival of the condoms marked the beginning of the week-long sex education curriculum mandated by the state of California. Over the next several days, our bio teacher would present different forms of contraception, discussions of active and enthusiastic consent, and (most memorably) blow a condom into a giant balloon to dispel the myth that a guy could be “too big” to wear one. 

Depending on where you live, your version of sex education may have looked completely different than mine. Sex education requirements vary wildly from state to state, with nine states having no mandate for sex ed at all. These wide-ranging expectations can make it difficult to determine what adequate sex ed looks like. According to Planned Parenthood, comprehensive sex ed should include the following: human growth and development, relationship education, personal skills education, sexual behavior (covering both abstinence as well as sexual activity), sexual health, and societal and cultural context. Taken together, comprehensive sex ed is meant to give teens of all backgrounds the tools they need to healthily navigate sex, relationships, and their own bodies. 

Proper sex education revolves around the idea that the more information you have, the better equipped you are to make decisions. A study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that teens who received comprehensive sex ed were 50% less likely to have unplanned pregnancies than those who receive abstinence-only education, and 60% less likely than teens who received no sex education whatsoever. Information and access to contraceptives such as condoms and birth control have been linked to an increase in the use of contraceptives, which can decrease both unplanned pregnancies as well as STD transmission. 

In recent years, some states have also begun adding consent education to their sex-ed curriculum. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the US has been forced to confront pervasive misunderstandings about what qualifies as consent. A study at the University of Chicago in 2015, found that the adults from ages 18-95 seemed to have widely different ideas of what constituted consent. Most worryingly, 19% of participants agreed that “not saying no” counted as acceptable consent. It’s clear better education in this area is necessary but while many colleges have instituted affirmative consent education programs, the majority of high school sex ed curriculums are not required to address the subject. As of right now, only ten states and Washington D.C. require that consent be taught along with sex ed. 

Consent isn’t the only area in which sex-ed requirements are falling short. The majority of sex and sexuality curriculum is designed to address heterosexual relationships between cisgender people. LGBTQ+ representation is grossly lacking with only 9 states requiring that educators discuss these identities in ways that are inclusive and supportive. If you’re an LGBTQ+ teen living in Alabama, Texas, Arizona, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, or Oklahoma there are laws in place that ensure teachers can only talk about your identities/ relationships in a negative manner. This lack of supportive education is incredibly dangerous to LGBTQ+ teens. Excluding these identities from the curriculum is not only invalidating, it also leaves these young people with no support as they attempt to figure out how to safely and healthily navigate sexual relationships. 

Luckily, there are a whole host of organizations that are working to fill in the gaps left by shotty sex ed curriculums. If you’re looking for inclusive, sex-positive resources to continue your sex education, here are a few:

  1. Planned Parenthood: Planned Parenthood is a great resource. They have articles on gender identity, healthy relationships, contraceptives, and everything in between. Got a specific question? You can chat with a health educator through their site and get an answer right away!
  2. Scarleteen: Run by a predominantly queer, female, or gender-nonconforming staff, this site is full of the inclusivity your school’s sex ed may have been lacking. This site is especially great if you’re looking for a larger overview of sex ed topics. They also have some fantastic resources for LGBTQ+ people on everything from how to deal with intolerant family members to practicing safe sex. 
  3. Sex Ect: Much like the other two resources, Sex Ect is a positive and safe space to answer all your sex ed questions. Notable resources include a state by state look up where you can research the laws around sex/ sexuality in your state, their clinic finder which can help you find STD testing near you, and their condom game that teaches you how to properly use a condom. 

Got sex ed questions? Leave a comment down below!

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