Sexual education in the United States is severely behind. The curriculums offered in most school are not providing teens with all of the information they need to be safe, and leaving them with questions unanswered. Teens are curious, and when they aren’t provided with adequate information from school or their parents, they will take their questions online. Not everyone has access to online resources or are able to teach themselves from these resources. And those that do are stuck sorting through the millions of online sources trying to determine what is reliable.
This page will walk you through a current snapshot of the state of sex education in the United States, as well as ways we can improve both within this curriculum and in our communities to better serve the teenage population.
Watch This Video to Start
A Quick Introduction
Sexual health is a global issue, and the United States stands out in a very negative way. For a very well developed country, we are not adequately preparing our students to enter the world, and as a result, we have some of the worst statistics for areas such as teen pregnancy and STI rates.
Graphic by Government of Canada
Image by A. Schalet
The difference between the United States and other countries is glaring, and there is a clear reason why. Many European countries have developed comprehensive sex education courses in schools that promote the correct use of a variety of contraceptives, and other topics such as consent. They do not rely on pushing abstinence because they know that many teenagers will likely have sex. Instead, they provide them with the resources to protect them.
The region of the United States falling the most behind in sex education is the “Bible Belt” composed of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. This geographical region is heavily influenced by evangelical christian beliefs, which find their way into the legislature surrounding sex education, as well as public opinion. Sex ed is seen as a personal belief as opposed to a health and wellbeing necessity, and many parents choose to stay quiet on the subject because it is seen as taboo or sinful. This leaves it up to the school system to educate children, making mandates for required sex ed a must. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in many states, and the ones that do require sex ed do not require it to be comprehensive, but instead lean towards abstinence plus or abstinence only curriculums. Southern culture teaches children that it is not okay to be curious, and that sex should only be talked about within a marriage. This leaves many southerners completely lost and not knowing where to access vital information.
The Guttmacher Institute has found that only one state in the Bible Belt requires for the information provided in sex ed courses to be medically accurate, and only four states are allowed to show condoms, while every state is allowed to preach religion in the course and are required promote sex within a marriage setting.
Image by the Guttmacher Institute
Other parts of the country do things a little bit differently. Known for their more liberal policies, New England has some of the best sex ed practices in the country, but that unfortunately isn’t saying much. While more states are inclusive with gender orientation, and none are required to stress sex only within a marriage context, the chart is strikingly similar in the other categories. A major difference not noted on these charts are the inclusion of contraception methods in the curriculum. The Bible Belt shames the use of contraceptives in preference of natural family planning, while New England boasts excellent statistics with contraceptive awareness with 83% of students reporting having learned about condoms in school. Unfortunately this percentage does not include any other methods of contraceptive or STI prevention.
Image by the Guttmacher Institute
The difference in the education provided by these two regions have directly affected both the teen pregnancy rates and STI rates in their respective areas. These statistics show that a greater range of materials taught during high school sex education courses are creating teens who are better informed to make good decisions about their sexual health.
Image by the Guttmacher Institute
Image by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention
As a senior in high school in Mississippi, I have not had positive experiences with sex education in school. I received a single course in the eighth grade that was an abstinence based curriculum. I remember leaving that class with more questions than I had answers, and many topics were never even mentioned, such as contraceptives, STIs, consent, and where to find resources. Many of my classmates were in the same boat, and it was up to us as middle schoolers to teach ourselves. This experience was not limited my private school; through an anonymous poll that I sent to 432 students from various Mississippi high schools, I found that 92% of those surveyed felt that their sex ed courses were inadequate.
From talking to my peers, the universal experience in Mississippi classrooms has been:
- The separation of boys and girls and a difference in subject matter discussed between the two
- A requirement to “opt-in” to the course with a signed permission slip from one or both parents
- No demonstrations or props allowed
- Abstinence taught as the only form of contraception or as the only “good” method
These experiences are universal because of the 2011 Mississippi Sex Education Law that requires all of these guidelines to be followed in public schools. Private schools have the freedom to choose their own curriculum, but because most Mississippi Private schools are religious, these guidelines are also followed in their classrooms.
Image by Karsen Brandenburg
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If you didn’t get a perfect score, it may be time to brush up on your facts. These questions are just the tip of the iceberg. Stay informed by educating yourself and others.
A Better Curriculum
The best thing to do is to have a consistent and comprehensive sex education curriculum that is used in all schools in all states. The information that would need to be kept consistent are things like:
- Requiring sex ed to be taught in every school
- Requiring sex ed to be medically accurate
- Requiring conversation about different contraceptive methods- listing abstinence as an option, not a requirement
- Teaching consent
- Including conversations about gender and sexuality
These are the most basic must-haves for a consistent sex education that would equip students with the things they need to make informed decisions, but they are not the only things we should include. Schools need to start making better efforts to have open discussion about sex without shaming students, create safe spaces to ask questions, and help locate local resources for students like sexual health screening locations and where to find free contraceptives.
What You Can Do
Speak up! I personally became involved in sex education reform in my state because I started hearing statistics from other students who were passionate about sex education progress. The best way to fight misinformation and lower the rates of teen pregnancy, STI rates, etc. is to share what you know. Get educated yourself and help others to do the same. Come across a good resource? Share it! The more that sex education is brought up, the more socially acceptable it is to talk about it and to have those conversations about reform. Especially in the South, the topic is considered taboo, and the legislature follows that opinion for the classroom, but if we change the narrative, legislature changes will eventually follow.
Locally I have witnessed a rise in Mississippi students who are fighting for access to better education for all Mississippians. The Mississippi Youth Council travels all around the state, helping students get involved at whatever level they feel comfortable with, and educating them on issues where their schools fell short. I have witnessed the shift in mentality of both schools and students after the Council visited. Even within my own religious school, sex ed related assemblies became more common and students started speaking out on issues. My school has recently even published a magazine issue on the topic of sex, started discussing sex more freely in science classrooms, and allowed students to talk about sex freely and display sex ed resources resources on campus like the one below.
Infographic by Ava Ketner
This is just the progress I have seen in one school, imagine if we worked to bring this type of progress to every school in the country. This would allow more students to explore their curiosity, get educated, and make informed decisions for their lives that will reduce many of the negative statistics that the country faces. I encourage you all look at the quality of sex ed and the attitudes towards it in your area, and think about how you can get involved in making that better.
In the comments I request that you guys tell me a little bit about your own community to see where your community stands in comparison to others and how you can get involved.
- Where do you go for sex education resources? School? Online resources? Word of mouth?
- Are people in your area comfortable talking about sex?
- Is sex education comprehensive at your school? Are your administrators open to changing their curriculum?
- Are there likeminded people you can connect with to reach a wider audience?