What Ideal Sex Ed Looks Like
Originally Published: April 23, 2021
Revised: May 15, 2021
I can remember sitting in my seventh grade health class getting the “your body is changing” talk and thinking, I already have my period. I know these things because they’ve already happened to me. That too-little, too-late theme continued into my health classes in high school, where I didn’t receive any sex ed until my senior year. I remember looking around the room at my classmates and thinking, They failed us. By “they,” I mean my school’s administration. But after doing some research, I now see that the issue is more complex.
I didn’t receive any sex ed until my senior year. I remember looking around the room at my classmates and thinking, They failed us.
After looking into this more, I discovered that limited sex ed programs can be the result of state laws as well as school administrations and teachers who do not have adequate training in sex ed. There’s not one person that can be blamed. But just because an issue is complex doesn’t mean that it can’t be fixed!
As I mentioned, sex ed teachers don’t always get enough support and training. I also found out that sex ed is not even required to be medically accurate in some states. And even in states where there are laws about how sex ed should be taught, there may not be any oversight to make sure it’s happening properly.
So what would ideal sex ed look like? Below, I’ve listed some of the major areas that need to be addressed. Check it out and compare how your sex ed experience measures up.
Well Trained Teachers
Ideally, sex ed classes would include open and honest conversations between students and their teachers. Teachers would feel equipped to teach about sex and sexuality and create a non-judgmental, safe classroom space where students would feel free to ask questions. But some teachers are not comfortable discussing sex.
“Sex ed always feels uncomfortable and rushed,” says George, 15, of Frenchtown, NJ. “The teachers never seemed like they wanted to be talking about that stuff, so students never felt comfortable actually asking questions.”
Sex is often a stigmatized topic, so it’s not surprising that sex ed can feel awkward. The responsibility of creating a safe, nonjudgmental environment in the sex ed classroom falls to the teacher. But some school districts don’t provide adequate training for sex ed teachers. Some don’t offer a lot of time for sex ed in the class schedule. And sometimes, sex ed is assigned to gym teachers, who may or may not have interest in teaching it. Most sex ed teachers are doing the best they can with what they have. They need more.
As I mentioned, I learned about menstruation after I had already started getting my period. Ideally, students would learn about concepts early enough so that they’re prepared for real life! Using developmentally appropriate content, sex ed should be taught the same way any other subject is, from kindergarten through senior year of high school, starting with simple concepts and leading to more advanced material as students get older.
For instance, young children should be taught consent in an age-appropriate way, with lessons about personal space and respect. They should be taught the correct names for body parts. As kids get older, they should be prepared for puberty and learn about reproduction. They should be taught that both sexual orientation and gender identity exist on a spectrum. They should be taught about options for contraception and how to have safer sex to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). They should also receive ongoing lessons on consent, communication and healthy relationships. Too often, lessons come too late, if they come at all.
“I’m a senior, and we only learned about consent this year!” says Hannah, 18, of Jasper, GA. “We were taught abstinence freshman, sophomore and junior year. It wasn’t until senior year that there was even a mention of contraception or consent. That’s way too late; by now most of my classmates have already had sex. All of the information would have been much more helpful years ago.”
Hannah’s experience is not unique. Sex ed is often stuffed into a 12th grade health class, if at all. But waiting until senior year to teach sex ed can leave teens without tools to make informed choices.
Additionally, though schools should include abstinence in their sex ed curriculum, this should not be the only pregnancy prevention method taught. There should be comprehensive contraception education, for those that decide that they are ready to have sex and want to do so safely.
More Than Anatomy
Some sex ed programs focus on things like STDs and the anatomy of the sexual and reproductive systems but lack material on healthy versus unhealthy relationships and consent. Sex ed should teach communication skills and encourage students to reflect on what they are and aren’t ready for sexually, how to convey that to a partner and how to listen to a partner about their desires and boundaries. Teachers should talk to students about the importance of trust and mutual respect when developing intimacy—both physical and emotional—with others. There should also be violence prevention information, such as material regarding dating violence (including physical and emotional abuse)¬, sexual assault and sexual harassment.
“Almost all of the relationships I saw around me were toxic, including one of my best friends,” says Brigid, 19, of Boston. “But we were not equipped to show her the red flags: we were teenagers that hadn’t even been taught about healthy relationships or mental health effectively ourselves. In a perfect world, I would see sex ed including lessons on healthy relationships and consent.” I think most of us can think of at least one unhealthy relationship, whether it was our own or a friend’s. What if sex ed taught us more about this?
Inclusivity and Affirmation
Ideally, sex ed would also be inclusive and respectful of sexual orientation, gender identity and different abilities. Sex ed should include affirming instruction on LGBTQ identities, covering sexual health for LGBTQ youth. It should include instruction on the range of sexual orientations as well as the difference between gender identity, gender expression and gender roles. Additionally, ideal sex ed would be intersectional. An intersectional approach acknowledges the different parts of people’s identities that have an impact on their sexuality. It also takes into account forms of oppression, like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and ableism, and how they have an impact on people’s experience of their sexuality.
“My sex ed experience was very heterosexual—there was no mention of different sexual orientations or gender identities at all,” says Mack, 18, of Philadelphia. “As a queer teenager, this felt very isolating and did nothing to teach me about potential STIs or other aspects of queer sex.”
Sadly, Mack’s sex ed program isn’t the only one that excludes queer students. Many schools don’t include information about sexual orientation or gender identity in their sex ed curriculum, leaving students who don’t identify as heterosexual or cisgender or who may be questioning, on their own.
My school’s sex ed program was lacking, and I saw the consequences. I watched as my friends suffered in toxic relationships. I heard stories of parties where girls who had been drinking became victims of sexual assault and we normalized it because we weren’t taught what consent or sexual assault was. We had young parents who were met with shaming. (Should we be shaming people when we don’t provide adequate sex education?) There were also kids who came out and were met with intolerance rooted in a lack of information about queer identities. The list goes on.
I’m not saying that if my school had a better sex ed program these things wouldn’t have happened, but I do think that some of it was avoidable. Sex ed isn’t the only tool. But it’s an important one.
Want to improve sex ed at your school? Share the National Sex Education Standards with your teachers and administrators.
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