An estimated five percent of US students receive comprehensive, evidence-based sexual education that includes medically accurate information, thoroughly accurate overviews of human sexuality and health, and, in some cases, discussions of gender identity and non-normative sexuality. That is a dismally low amount of people, making it perhaps not entirely unsurprising that a growing number of STIs are originating in teens and people in their early 20s, and that questions of sexual health and comfort with sexuality are confusing youth in the US.
It’s time for universal sex ed reform — just like the universal health reform that never happened — and we need to implement it as quickly as possible while rooting it in established research and science, looking at what works in sexual education and what doesn’t. Currently, regulations on sex ed, including what can be offered, how curricula should be structured, and what teachers cannot provide, vary from state to state. In some, teachers are required to offer abstinence-only sexual education, or to teach students that sexuality is both morally wrong and illegal. In others, students have a shot at excellent and detailed information about the full spectrum of human sexuality and sexual health.
That makes for dangerously uneven variations in sexual competency among US teens. Notably, while correlation is not causation, if maps of the United States are overlaid with each other, states with the least comprehensive sexual education tend to correlate with those that have the highest teen pregnancy and teen STI rates. Given the results of more qualitative studies examining these phenomena, there’s a clear and strong link between the nature of sexual education received and outcomes for youth.
Youth in the United States deserve better, especially when education failures create serious long-term risks. Students who are not receiving good sexual education are facing issues like an increased risk of STIs, some of which are chronic and can increase the risk of cancer, early death, and other health complications, like infertility. Teen pregnancy is also a significant concern. While pregnancy rates are dropping, infants born to teens and very young adults tend to have lower birth weights and more health problems. Parents also have to deal with considerable social aspects as they decide whether to terminate, adopt, or keep.
In states where teens can even access abortion, they may have to jump through a considerable number of hoops including ‘advocacy courts’ where someone pretends to be the foetus and argues in its defense, along with parental notification/consent laws that require their parents to be informed. For teens looking at adoption, they still need to carry their pregnancies to term, undergo labour and delivery, and deal with an emotionally traumatic experience that they will carry for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, those who choose to keep their children face considerable stigma and harmful social attitudes, making it difficult for them to lead successful lives — for example, many high schools don’t accommodate teen parents, forcing them to drop out. Likewise, parents often struggle in colleges and universities and may be unable to finish their degrees, which closes a number of opportunities to them.
There’s an easy solution to the issue of poor sexual education, and that’s a normalised national curriculum with minimum standard requirements. While I normally don’t advocate education initiatives of this nature (there are serious problems with the Common Core, for example), in this case, it’s merited. This is a whole new level of public health and safety for young adults who are being failed by their communities while they struggle with issues that may have life-long consequences.
We need to ensure that children receive comprehensive sexual education, starting in grammar school with age-appropriate material that grows over time to encompass larger issues. At a minimum, they should be informed about STIs and basic prevention as well as testing and treatment. They should learn about different birth control options — including abstinence — and their efficacy. They should learn about human sexuality in a nonjudgmental fashion that respects and normalises all aspects of the sexual spectrum, including homosexuality, heterosexuality, asexuality, polyamory, nonmonogamy, and other sexualities. Sex education should be kink positive. It should include discussions on how to identify abusive relationships and get help. It should include discussions about gender identity and resources for transgender teens.
Sexual education in the United States doesn’t need to be rigidly standardised — let’s not send out a uniform textbook and a hokey video to every single health teacher in the US. But teachers who offer sexual education need to receive training and information about how to meet the standards of a federally-mandated curriculum based on the latest information from sexual health and welfare organizations as well as government agencies like the CDC. A sexual education certificate system could be one way to implement such training, with the caveat that teaching certificates need to be kept affordable.
95 percent of this country’s youth are growing up with an incomplete understanding of human health, sexuality, and gender. This should be deeply disturbing and it should be drawing the Department of Education to act, developing a comprehensive and detailed curriculum recommendation. It’s highly likely that conservative states won’t like it and will fight even the most basic of recommendations to improve access to sexual education in the United States. Their ‘morals’ and ‘values’ don’t matter, and they shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the welfare of an entire nation.
Image: Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater (Merops oreobates) pair, Lip Kee Yap, Flickr