More than Ever, We Need Comprehensive Sex Education
By Jayne Swift | May 24, 2023
May is Sex Education for All month—a national campaign that highlights the need for universal, comprehensive sex education in schools. Comprehensive sex education is premised on the idea that sex education should be medically accurate and age- appropriate; equip young people to make informed decisions about their bodies, health, and sexuality; and should meet the needs of marginalized young people – including BIPOC, LGBTQ, and disabled students – who face the most barriers to bodily and sexual autonomy.
These are not radical demands. In fact, a significant majority of Americans support comprehensive sex education, and research shows it is highly effective in reducing many unwanted outcomes. Yet, for decades, conservative political movements have blocked comprehensive sex education and insisted on less effective “abstinence only/abstinence until marriage” (AOUM) approaches.
Contemporary attacks on trans students’ rights and teaching about racism were in many ways presaged by the right’s fight against sex education.
A Policy History of Sex Education
As scholars have noted, the question of what is taught in sex education classes –and who decides– is a politically fraught one. Beginning in the 1960s, right-wing groups attacked the era’s timid sex education as an obscene, communist plot. Janice Irvine has demonstrated that opposition to sex education served as a rallying cry for the nascent New Right. Groups such as the John Birch Society painted sex educators as “perverts,” inciting illicit sexual conduct. These groups skillfully used titillating sexual narratives to stoke public anxieties about a changing sexual culture.
The right achieved a major policy victory in the early 1980s when President Reagan signed the Adolescent Family Life Demonstration Act (AFLA). The AFLA earmarked federal funding for prevention and research related to adolescent pregnancy. With the ALFA the Christian Right succeeded in its goal to reallocate funding away from Planned Parenthood and toward “family-centered” programs that promoted chastity, abstinence, and adoption (over abortion). The AFLA would set the tone for the following decades, as it brought conservative religious doctrine into federal sex education initiatives and gave the Christian Right new control over funding streams. The AFLA paved the way for the widespread adoption of AOUM programs. AOUM emphasizes monogamous relationships in the context of heterosexual marriage and wrongfully insists that sexual activity outside of marriage will have harmful psychological and physical outcomes.
In the 1990s, President Clinton’s “welfare reform” package further cemented AOUM programs in sex education. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (1996) eliminated Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replaced it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Often noted for its race and sex-baiting and blaming poverty on the individual and their reproductive choices, welfare reform is less frequently connected to sex education. TANF established a new federal funding stream for AOUM programs. Title V initially allocated $50 million in block grants to states for programs that teach the “social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity” and that reproduction outside marriage was harmful. In the following years, funding for AOUM increased. Title V directly targeted poor school districts. As a result, students in low-income districts, districts that are often majority students of color, were more likely to receive AOUM curricula.
Through the power of the purse string, federal policymakers have made a conservative Christian, heteronormative, sexist, and racist sexual worldview the norm in public school sex education.
State of Sex Education in US
Research has consistently found that AOUM programs fail at their stated goals of delaying sexual intercourse and preventing STI transmission and unplanned pregnancies. Moreover, students schooled in AOUM curricula are exposed to gender stereotypes and LGBTQI+ students often experience poor mental health outcomes.
By contrast, comprehensive sex education is medically accurate; includes information about abstinence and instruction on safer sex methods; and equips young people to make decisions about their own sexuality. Ironically, research shows that comprehensive sex education results in the intended goals of AOUM, including delayed intercourse. Comprehensive sex education increases students’ use of condoms and contraceptive methods, decreases STI rates, holds potential to reduce sexual violence, and promotes mental well-being. Comprehensive sex education is supported by the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and others.
Despite overwhelming evidence of its effectiveness and support from healthcare and education professionals, comprehensive sex education is not the US standard.
Only 29 states and the District of Columbia mandate that sex education be taught in K-12 schools. Yet, even when states do mandate sex education, the instruction varies enormously. Thirty-four states require that sex ed stress AOUM, if delivered at all. Only 19 states require inclusion of information on contraceptive methods, 13 require information on consent, and only nine require affirmation of LGBTQ+ identities or sexual health concerns. By contrast, a mere five states require comprehensive sex education in schools.
The result is that students’ access to essential knowledge and resources is deeply inequitable and inconsistent. Like public education more broadly, sex education reflects and reproduces racial, class, gender, and sexual inequalities.
Minnesota, for instance, exemplifies the conflicted state of sex education policy. Minnesota schools are required to teach sex education and HIV instruction. However, sex education must emphasize abstinence and is not required to include information on consent or sexual orientation and gender identity. Curriculum must be available for parental review and allow parents to “opt-out” their children. Sex education varies widely from district to district, resulting in high STI transmission rates for Minnesota youth and racial, sexual, and geographic disparities in sexual health and violence rates.
Toward Sex Ed for All
Sex education has long been unduly shaped by conservative desires to constrain the supposedly destructive force of sexuality. We are currently witnessing a resurgence of reactionary attacks on sex education, in tandem with backlash against anti-racist and LGBTQ-affirming education. Proponents of this homogenizing worldview should not be allowed to hamstring young people’s access to evidence-based curricula.
Young people are not the property of their parents. They are developing humans entitled to knowledge and resources that promote their bodily autonomy.
Policymakers should work to increase access to comprehensive, inclusive sex education for all students:
● At the federal level, lawmakers should pass the REAHYA 2021 Act and Youth Access to Sexual Health Services Act. These two bills would reverse AOUM funding streams by providing grants for comprehensive, culturally sensitive, and LGBTQ-affirming sex education in schools, community settings, and for teacher training.
● State lawmakers should introduce and support model legislation that mandates and funds comprehensive sexuality education. Minnesota legislators should support Rep. Sydney Jordan’s bill, which would require school districts and charter schools to implement a comprehensive sexual education program in K-12 and require the state commissioner of education to develop a model program.
● On the local level, students, teachers, parents, community members, and municipal officials must present an affirmative defense of comprehensive sex education in their school districts. Supporters of comprehensive sex education can push school boards to adopt this model.
At its best, sex education should promote human flourishing in a broad sense—to teach individuals to respect others’ boundaries and cultivate caring relations, to see pleasure as life-enhancing and consider how to honor that power, and to make informed choices about one’s health. To do that, we must start with comprehensive sex education for all.
Jayne Swift is an independent scholar and Managing Editor of the Gender Policy Report.
Photo credit: Istock.com/UmidaKamalova