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America’s Unsexy Reality: The Problematic History of Sex Ed and its Curriculum

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The United States has long boasted about its education system. A system that favors quantity, attempting to squeeze as much content into the brains of young kids and teens throughout their K-12 education. Our education; however, has failed to uphold values and curriculum of well being, including the topic of sex ed. Sex ed has been overlooked far too long and left out of meaningful conversations which have left its curriculum and teachings antiquated and outdated.

Watch this video to understand why I was interested in the topic of sex ed.

The Need for Sex Ed in America’s Past

With the rise of public support for sex ed, the curriculum still had to be addressed and from the very start in 1981, the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFL) was passed. The AFL developed and encouraged abstinence-only curriculum while managing to strip away funding for programs that advocated for abortion (Perrin). Moreover, vital pieces of sex ed continued to be on the brink of extinction with the “reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education” in 1994 by Congress. The legislation limited the ability of schools to teach about sexuality and HIV but was unable to be implemented as the federal government cannot intervene with state and local curriculum (Perrin). This shows the magnitude of feelings from legislators to limit the ability of content to be provided to students and the limited scope of knowledge that students were gaining.

An image which shows the magnitude of the Sexual Revolution (
Blackman).

Since its origins, sexual education in the United States has lacked the ability to teach students concrete ideas about topics such as prevention, identity, and consent and its pedagogy has consisted of restricted viewpoints. Sex Ed in America first became a topic of conversation throughout the mid to late 1900s. The subject of sex and the role it played throughout American schools was one that became very controversial, especially throughout the Sexual Revolution. The Sexual Revolution is a term that is used to characterize “the changes in sexual attitudes and behaviors during the 1960s” (Smith). The Sexual Revolution brought about many things, one of them being sexual education as well as topics like birth control, homosexuality, and premarital sex (Smith). Furthermore, sex ed was brought to light because many thought that it would help combat STI’s and other problems related to sex during the time (DiGenio).

Around this time as well, there was lots of stigma towards HIV and sex ed programs were therefore implemented much faster because of this. In 1989, 40 states at least were required to or promoted teaching sex ed to students (Hechinger). Though the stepping stones were laid and America was headed in the right direction, the subject was still very nascent and hence brought many challenges along with it. There were little to no resources, teachers lacked the quality to teach it adequately, and the overall program focused on intervention rather than prevention. School officials were intimidated to teach the subject and topics such as homosexuality and birth control got lots of backlash, especially from religious groups (Hechinger). Additionally, research has shown a disparity between sex education among youth of color. About 83% of teenage HIV infections come from Blacks and Latinos and these communities are often underfunded with inadequate resources to help guide these students (Miner).

The truth is that there has been little progress in an attempt to reshape our sex ed programs, but there have been some studies which have shown whether comprehensive or abstinence-only programs are more effective. A study called “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs,” studied the outcomes of whether abstinence programs were effective in preventing people from having sex until marriage. It was later concluded that the programs had no effect on delaying when people become sexually active (Malone). Two-thirds of the second study titled, “Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Disease” found that sex ed programs which were more than just abstinence-based and were comprehensive, showed a shift to “positive sexual behavior”. Furthermore, comprehensive sex ed programs delayed the time when people begin having sexual intercourse and increased the use of safe sex (Malone).

An infographic highlighting sex ed legislation in modern day America (America’s).

Sex Ed in the 21st Century

The journey of sex ed throughout American history has been anything but a straight path and up until today, it has struggled to cater to all groups. Unlike many other problems which America has faced throughout her existence, sex ed has stayed the same, rather than gradually continue to become more severe. However, this means that the sex ed curriculum has not kept up with the changing of the tides and is outdated, which has proved to be problematic in today’s world. This new curriculum many are championing for is known as comprehensive sex education. Comprehensive sex education includes many different teachings, some being: anatomy, physiology, families, personal safety, healthy relationships, pregnancy and birth, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, contraceptives, sexual orientation, [ect]” (Futureofsexed.org).

As of 2009, “48 states received nearly $1 billion in federal funding to support abstinence-only programs” (Boryczka). This means that instead of receiving knowledge on topics related to comprehensive sex ed, students were taught that abstinence was the way to go about living their lives. Furthermore, vital groups such as the LGBTQ+ community, have continued to be ignored as they were in the past. In all the sex ed curriculum throughout America, still, only 19% of them are LGBTQ+ inclusive (Lack of Comprehensive). Furthermore, according to Sex and HIV Education by Guttmacher Institute, only 24 states make it a requirement to teach sex ed to students. Even then, only 18 states mandate that students be introduced to contraceptives, whereas 27 states must stress the option of abstinence (“Sex and HIV Education.”). It has become clear that our methods of teaching are no longer suitable for new generations.

The flag which the LGBTQ+ community (Oxford).

After doing research, I learned that many of the efforts to reform sex ed have been policy and legislatively driven as well as there being many independent case studies advocating for other solutions. Given that states mandate sex ed curriculum, there have been pieces of legislation introduced statewide, such as in Colorado where one such piece of legislation would “bar the state’s public and charter schools from abstinence-only education” (Levin). This proposed bill otherwise known as HB19-1032 would widen the scope of sex ed, allowing for students to be taught about “safe sex, consent and sexual orientation” (Levin). Similarly, in 2015, five organizations, including well known Planned Parenthood, issued a call to action to the American government for a push to implement more comprehensive and inclusive sex ed curriculum (Lack of Comprehensive). While this call to action did not directly affect any legislation, it urged leaders to take a step to include a marginalized group in sex ed teachings, which was the LGBTQ+ community.

There are a variety of organizations working on this cause, one of them being the Future of Sex Education (also known as FoSE) which was created as a partnership with Advocates for Youth and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (Futureofsexed.org). They have worked on numerous projects, one of them being a guide for educators to be able to comprehensively teach sex ed. Contrastingly, Professor Perry L. Glanzer claims that the approach we should be taking is one referred to as “released-time sex education” (Glanzer). This means that students would have a block of time during the day to receive sex education from outside groups, especially religious groups. Glanzer believes that this would tackle the issue of parents not confiding in the public school system to teach the subject of sex to students and it would also dispel much of the controversy surrounding the topic. In addition, school districts would no longer have to pay for sex education, but Glanzer recognizes that there is a fear that  these outside groups could be “keeping power and promoting one’s favored world view” (Glanzer).

Tackling the Problem Head-on

It’s become apparent: solutions to current day sex-ed need to get at the root cause of the problem. As is the solution to many other problems, we need to begin by shifting the culture and destigmatizing the topic of sex-ed.

In this TEDxSaltLakeCity, Thea Holcomb gives a unique perspective on how peers can educate one other on the subject of sex ed.

Small Scale Solutions

Changing sex ed culture can be done on a local level, by individuals and also scaled to a national level. Shifting the culture can be done through campaigns that highlight the best in sex-ed and show Americans the benefits of the program. Furthermore, solutions on an individual level can be to engage in meaningful dialogue with peers, adults, and via social media about what sex-ed means to different students. Often, it takes people to begin talking about the problem for it to become relevant. Lastly, I think that urging your elected officials to take a clear stand and support legislation that will reform sex-ed is one of the most powerful things, we as Americans living in a democracy can do.

Large Scale Solutions

On a national level, I believe that we need to use all the resources in our power, including young people. I suggest that we create a task force on sex-ed or a congressional caucus, which comprises the voices of young people – advocating for what they need in the sex-ed curriculum. Moreover, we need to utilize modern day technology and use it as a tool to make sex-ed more accessible, especially in rural parts of America. We should develop software to expand the classroom-based curriculum to be able to reach more young people for them to access valuable information when they most need it and are most comfortable. I strongly believe that in order for this to happen, the legislation will need to be passed on a national level first. Our legislators would have to adopt a common, comprehensive curriculum which encompasses all people and identities.

Feedback

Please take the time to fill out this survey to gauge the education of the audience on the topic of sex ed. In addition to this, please leave any thoughts or questions in the comments below – I’ll make sure to get back to you!

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COMMENTS: 7
  1. April 25, 2019 by rebecca urato Reply

    Ivan, great job! The issues with sex education in America are huge and need to be tackled head on. I love how you compared modern day sex education with the sex education in the past, and provided both small and large scale solutions. Amazing work!

  2. April 25, 2019 by Siena.Martin Reply

    Ivan! You never fall to amaze me. Great project, very informational! Do you plan on doing anything to implement some of these solutions you discuss?

  3. April 26, 2019 by Maya.Edwards Reply

    Hi Ivan! I loved your project. The topic was really intriguing for me, and you brought up a very important point that the LGBTQ community is not represented well at all in the sex ed curriculum. Reflecting back on my middle school sex ed experience, the first 3 years of middle school the sex ed teachers did not talk at all about sexual experiences and health for the LGBTQ community, and then in 8th grade they did. It was the first time someone had talked about it, and we were all very glad that they did. I wish they had talked more about it earlier, and I hope that they are beginning to make it a bigger topic within the curriculum.

  4. April 26, 2019 by Merrill.Buczek Reply

    Hi Ivan, this is such an important project for the young kids growing up right now. Relating back to one of the keynote speakers, Chessy, sex ed reform can be a small scale solution to teaching kids at a young age what consent is and that it is necessary. Also being able to include LGBTQ sex education can help create a healthier world for EVERYONE and not just one group of people. Great job!

  5. April 29, 2019 by Payton Reply

    Ivan, this is a really really great presentation. There was clearly a lot of effort and time put into this. I think this is such an important topic for so many reasons. I personally wish that sex education had been more prevalent at my school because there is definitely so much that people don’t know and it is scary to think about some of the ignorance of certain individuals pertaining to sex. Wonderful presentation!

  6. April 29, 2019 by Nick Reply

    Hey ivan, i enjoyed your solution sections both small and large scale and think that your recomendation to start the conversation about sex ed is essential , but in addition to the initiation of conversations, at what ages do you think these meaningful dialog should occure because sexual identity and awareness struggles happen at variety of ages

  7. April 29, 2019 by Amaya.Weekes Reply

    Hi Ivan. I really enjoyed your quiz because it made me think about sex education at school and the variety at which it is taught.

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