Speak Up for Sex Education
Originally Published: June 18, 2018
Revised: May 30, 2019
SEX! Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about sex. Sex education, family-life education, health class. No matter what you or your school calls it, sex ed is a crucial topic. But sex education varies depending on where you live and go to school and whether you have other sources of sex education, like your parents, church or community groups. These differences in sex ed are worth talking about because some of us are getting medically accurate sex ed that covers anatomy and safer sex as well as a range of topics, like consent, healthy relationships, sexual orientation and gender identity. Some of us get no sex ed, while others are getting a few basics at best and scare tactics and shaming at worst. With so much variety in what’s being taught, we have to advocate for better and more thorough sex ed!
Parents: Not the Only Source of Sex Ed
For some people, sexuality is something to be discussed with parents or caregivers. And they’re right; you should be able to talk to a parent about sexuality. Many parents are the first people to talk to their kids about sex. Eight out of 10 young people and their parents have talked about sex, according to a survey of over 1,600 pairs of parents and their children conducted by Planned Parenthood and New York University’s Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health in 2014.
Even if some teens hear about sex from their parents first, that likely won’t be their only source. From conversations with friends to social media to pornography on the internet, many of these other sources can create unrealistic and potentially skewed views on what constitutes a healthy relationship, body image and consent. And parents are aware of this. Returning to the poll mentioned above, 90 percent of parents surveyed said they approved of sex education in middle and high school, including on topics like birth control, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), healthy versus unhealthy relationships, abstinence and sexual orientation. In other words, they want sex education that covers a range of topics, not simply pregnancy and STD prevention.
Abstinence-only programs leave out important topics or provide misinformation in favor of promoting a narrow agenda.
Are You Getting a Comprehensive Sex Education?
I asked Jacob, 19, of Schwenksville, PA, what sex ed should include. He says, “Contraception, birth control, positivity regarding sex, education about the LGBTQ community and acceptance of all types of questions.”
Jacob is totally right. Comprehensive sex ed should cover these topics and be science-based, age-appropriate, culturally sensitive and medically accurate. However, depending on your school and where you live, you may not be getting the sex ed you need and deserve. (Visit Sex in the States to learn more about the laws regarding sex education in your state.)
In the U.S., there are sex ed programs that focus on remaining abstinent until marriage. Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which are sometimes called “sexual risk avoidance” programs, focus on encouraging teens to avoid any sexual behavior before marriage. Ninety-five percent of Americans have sex before marriage and 17 is the median age at which Americans have sex for the first time, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Expecting people to wait until marriage to have sex is not realistic.
Even when sex ed programs aren’t specifically labeled as “abstinence-only,” many focus on abstinence and some even shame teens. “While my sex ed didn’t necessarily teach abstinence-only, it definitely was encouraged,” says Giana, 19, of Piscataway, NJ. “If someone did have sex, they were looked down upon as slutty or attention-seeking.”
Abstinence-only programs are also heteronormative, meaning they focus on heterosexual relationships. By leaving out any talk of other sexual orientations and gender identities, they are not preparing students who may be in same-sex partnerships to practice safer sex.
Abstinence is one of many options that should be taught in sex education, but the problem with abstinence-only programs is that they don’t provide medically accurate information about birth control methods and often distort information. For example, in these programs, they may show images of late-stage STDs as a scare tactic even though most STDs have no symptoms. And these scare tactics don’t prevent teens from having sex. Without accurate information about safer sex and with misinformation about how effective condoms are, teens are not prepared to reduce their risk of STDs and pregnancy by practicing safer sex. Comprehensive sex education teaches you about how to protect yourself against STDs and about where and how to get tested for them. In addition to STDs, you learn about contraceptives, consent, LGBTQ issues, and more!
So What Can We Do?
Abstinence-only programs leave out important topics or provide misinformation in favor of promoting a narrow agenda. Even so, abstinence-only programs still receive a lot of government support. In 2016 alone, Congress spent between $55 to $85 million on a program created in 1982 to encourage teenagers not to have sex, according to the Guttmacher Institute. There is over 30 years of public health research that shows that information on both contraception and abstinence helps teens delay sex, have healthy relationships and have lower rates of STDs and unintended pregnancies when they do choose to have sex.
While it’s difficult to demand the federal government change decades-old policies, you can always start locally in your community. And there are plenty of ways to advocate for better sex education.
- Bring up comprehensive sex ed at a student council meeting. Student council meetings are a platform for students to talk about school-related issues that have an impact on them. This would be an appropriate place to talk about a part of the curriculum that is key to teens’ health.
- Talk to your teachers and principals. “Tell your gym/health teachers, tell your principals or write to a state or district council,” suggests Chris, 17, of Dumont, NJ. Talking to those that are involved in your education is important. Try speaking up at a school board meeting. Sit down with your administrators or your health teachers and voice your concerns. Tell the heads of the school that you want to change your sex education for the better.
- Make sex ed a priority. “I think in high school they should teach (sex ed) more and not only in electives like anatomy that only a few people take,” says Madds, 17, of Jersey City, TX. Ask your school to make sex ed a more prominent part of the regular curriculum.
- Start a conversation on your town or city’s parent Facebook page or other social media platform. Don’t doubt the power of a social media campaign. It can create a conversation that can lead to change.
- Send letters to your representatives. Have you heard of Resistbot? Simply text RESIST to 50409, and it’ll help you write a letter to your representatives, your senators and even your governor. This can create a dialogue between you and those who represent you in the government.
- Share Sex, Etc. with your friends, health teachers and administrators. Sharing the magazine and Sexetc.org with people is one way to start the conversation about sex education at your school.
- Talk to your parents or older siblings. They can be your greatest allies. They can answer questions and help advocate for better sex ed at your school.
There’s no shortage of things you can do to speak up for something as essential as your education. So, if you feel like you’re not receiving a thorough sex education, speak up and make yourself heard!
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