The inconsistency of sex education
Updated: May 4
By Caroline Mueller
Sexual education in the United States is not equal.
The public school curriculum regarding such topics is varied and does not adhere to a national requirement.
Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia mandate some form of sex and/or HIV education.
There are many opinions and taboos surrounding these topics.
Many people believe that discussing these topics in public schools is inappropriate and should be the responsibility of parents or guardians.
However, the consequences of such inconsistencies pose a threat to the future health and safety of young people.
Decisions about what should be taught in sex education class are made at the state and local level.
No federal law dictates what should be included in the curriculum or how it should be taught, leaving complete autonomy up to the states and school districts.
“We don’t have a national standard," said Stephanie Boye, sexual assault counselor, educator, author and mother of three.
Giving this power up to the individual school districts not only creates a huge gap between what students are learning nationwide but also limits the educators on what they can and cannot talk about in their classrooms.
Sara Stevenson, professor of human sexuality at the College of Charleston, noted the effects of these restrictions.
“Maybe [teachers] would like to be able to talk about how to put on a condom and they are not allowed to in the school district," she explained.
When young students are not receiving adequate information their curiosity builds and they turn to other devices for answers.
“It starts young and it builds on when you can’t have education in the K-12 setting so they turn to the internet because it's at your fingertips. That helps these misconceptions grow online," said Stevenson.
Only 38 percent of high schools and 14 percent of middle schools nationwide teach all 19 of the subjects that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have classified as essential for sex education.
There is also an extensive debate about teaching these topics in public schools.
“There are 2 battling sides. There’s the sexual risk avoidance which is basically abstinence and then there's comprehensive sex ed," said Boye.
And the argument for each side is sound.
At a board meeting in New Jersey school districts, those against the implementation of a fully comprehensive sex education argued that it is exposing children to “sexually explicit” material and “indoctrinating” kids into “woke ideology".
“I can understand both worlds, parents don’t want an agenda put on their kids. I also see the fault of abstinence-only education," Boye added.
Comprehensive sex education includes scientifically accurate information about human development, anatomy and reproductive health along with reproductive health such as contraception, childbirth, Sexually Transmitted Infections and HIV.
“In my opinion, both of these have an agenda," Boye said. "Sexual risk avoidance feels like it's founded in Christian morality. Comprehensive sex ed’s agenda is very progressive."
Sex talk has a serious stigma
Another limitation of teaching sex education in public school is the ever-present taboo associated with discussing sexual topics.
In American culture, it is normal to feel shame about our bodies and our sexuality, so talking openly about sex and sexuality may bring up feelings of awkwardness and uncomfortability.
Stevenson explained that the stigma has been around a long time.
“It used to be a lot more unsafe," she said. "The attitudes that our grandparents and parents had are not the same as they are now. It also just makes people uncomfortable."
And this has further perpetuated negative ideas about sex, Boye added.
“I think it’s baked into our DNA," she said. "It’s something that we have to consciously make a choice. Even in my generation, it was not healthy how parents were spearheading conversations about what healthy relationships looked like."
History of sex education in America
There is a lack of scientific research on this subject. Historically speaking, sex education in the U.S. has only been around for roughly 100 years.
“It’s also kind of a new phenomenon too. Generationally we weren’t ready to have these conversations until now. We have seen an evolution in relationships”, said Boye.
In 1993, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that federally funded sex education programs must omit any direct references to religion.
However, this did not eliminate the ties between sex and religion.
“[Sex has] always been central to theology. That’s how we have more children to continue on religion. Different religions form different rules around it and whether or not you adhere to any religion it's still part of culture because it’s been passed down and so deeply ingrained”, claimed Stevenson.
Consequences of discrepancies in 'Sex Ed'
The repercussions of this inconsistency in education is evident in the statistics.
The U.S. has a higher teen birth rate than any other country in the world, and 49% of all pregnancies are unplanned.
People ages 15-24 make up about a fourth of the American population, but they accounted for nearly half of all new sexually transmitted infections.
Andrea Tsuritis, pediatric nurse practitioner at CofC Student Health Services, sees the consequences of inadequate sexual health education on a daily basis.
“I find that female patients are less educated about the need for a pap smear when they turn 21. I think the STI that people are less informed about is herpes, especially the genital kind," she said.
And facing the reality of these situations can be extremely frustrating.
“Sometimes patients come in with symptoms [of STI’s] and they have no idea. To have that bomb dropped is really difficult. And then it’s like, who do you tell? It’s a lot more common than people think," Tsuritis explained.
If people were more aware of the symptoms of these infections then they could address and hopefully cure them before it becomes a long term health issue.
Along with the influx of STIs and unplanned pregnancies, lack of a comprehensive sex education can lead to misunderstandings of consent.
Only 11 states require the importance of consent to sexual activity to be covered in their curriculum.
“Consent is neglected because it goes hand in hand with pleasure. We’re afraid to talk about the pleasurable aspect of sex because we have to keep it scientific in a classroom setting," said Stevenson.
If we don’t teach students about consent we enable them to believe that ignorance is an excuse for inappropriate behavior.
Statistically speaking, most rapists don’t believe they raped someone.
If you look at sexual assault court cases, very rarely will sex offenders admit to the offense. Often they say something along the lines of “I thought she wanted it to”.
Neglecting consent when discussing sexual education leads to these kinds of misconceptions, and sustains the prominence and normalization of sexual assault.
Public school curriculum and the LGBTQ community
The sex ed that is taught is more often than not directed for straight, cis gendered youth, leaving the LGBTQ+ community in the dark.
“There is a big push back against the gender ideology from conservative parents," explained Boye. "And justifiably so. It’s not based in science; it’s very much a progressive agenda."
A total of 7.2% of U.S. adults identify as part of the LGBTQ community and most of this reflects adults 25 and under.
The education provided in the public school setting caters to heteronormativity, and fails to address any other sexual orientation or identity.
“They don’t address the LGBTQ community for example," said Boye. "They never discuss it, K-12 you never discuss sexual identity. To me that’s just not realistic."
How do we move forward?
There are differing opinions on how we should go about providing a better understanding of sexual education in the future.
Some feel it is an issue to be discussed at home and not in school. Where others believe it to be a school policy issue.
“It has to come back to the policies. Whether it's through the school board or state legislation or a combination of both," said Stevenson. "Giving our teachers the freedom to be the best educators they can be and letting the policy inform that."
Dr. Merissa Ferrara, assistant professor specializing in Interpersonal and Health Communication and mother of two, has experienced first hand having to assist in educating her children on sex ed.
“I think every parent should…most students say they needed more consistent open messaging," she said.
An overwhelming response is a combination of both in school and at home education.
“Schools should be scaffolding how parents should be educating their kids all along," said Boye. “It starts with bringing parents up to speed and helping them understand the fallout of neglecting these conversations."