Sex education in the United States has been a subject of unending controversy for years. Unlike many other developed countries, the US approach to sex education varies widely across states, leading to significant disparities in the information and resources available to students. The debate surrounding what should be taught, when, and how continues to be a hot topic among educators, policymakers, parents, and advocates.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 21 states do not mandate sexual education, and even within the states that do mandate it, the information may not be medically accurate, unbiased, or useful to students. SIECUS reports that only 3 states mandate that comprehensive sex education be taught in all schools. Check out the infographic below for a closer look at how variable sex education is throughout the nation today.
Abstinence-Only Versus Comprehensive Sex Education
One of the key points of contention in sex education is the debate between abstinence-only and comprehensive approaches. Abstinence-only programs emphasize refraining from sexual activity until marriage, often omitting information about contraception and safe sex practices. On the other hand, comprehensive sex education covers a wider array of topics, including information on contraception, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), consent, healthy relationships, and LGBTQ+ issues.
Currently, 30 states require that abstinence is emphasized when sharing sexual education, and 16 states rely on abstinence-only curriculums. While these programs may intuitively seem to be a potential solution to delay teens from having sex, research has shown that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t have the intended effect. Teenagers who have had abstinence-based sex education tend to explore their sexuality around the same time as their peers, but often lack vital information about how to keep themselves and others safe . Research has shown that comprehensive sex education does not lead to earlier first sexual experiences or higher rates of STIs, and adolescents who received comprehensive sex education have lower rates of teen pregnancy .
Challenges and Controversies
Several challenges impede progress in sex education across the nation. Resistance from certain communities, cultural taboos, religious beliefs, and concerns about age-appropriate content are some of the barriers that educators and advocates face. Additionally, the lack of standardization leads to disparities in the quality and inclusivity of sex education, leaving many students ill-equipped to make informed decisions about their sexual health. However, researchers have consistently demonstrated that access to quality sexual education is associated with a variety of positive outcomes, including lower rates of teen pregnancy and abortion. Researchers have suggested that access to sex education and no-cost contraceptives could reduce teen abortion rates by up to 78% .
The Importance of Inclusive and Comprehensive Education
Advocates of comprehensive sex education argue that providing accurate, age-appropriate information is crucial in promoting sexual health and well-being. Inclusive education that acknowledges diverse identities and orientations helps create a more accepting and supportive environment for all students. In a review of 80 research articles, Goldfarb and Lieberman found that comprehensive sex education resulted in a host of positive outcomes, including a heightened understanding and acceptance of sexual diversity, the cultivation of healthy relationships, enhanced social and emotional learning, and increased proficiency in media literacy. The researchers also noted that comprehensive sex education reduces instances of sexual assault and intimate partner violence . Overall, the authors’ review of three decades of research provides strong support for comprehensive sex education.
The Role of Parents and Guardians
While schools play a significant role in sex education, parents can also provide important sexual health information to their children. In fact, teens often report that their parents are the most influential figures in their lives when it comes to sexual decision making. Open communication between parents and children about sexual health and relationships fosters an environment where young people feel comfortable seeking guidance and support.
Looking for information on how to have “the talk?” Planned Parenthood offers a variety of resources for parents like books, factsheets, and more to help parents talk to their children about sexuality. You can also check out our podcast interviews with Lanae St. John and Debby Herbenick for in-depth discussions on the topic.
How Can Sex Education Be Improved?
Understanding the diverse approaches to sex education across states highlights the need for ongoing discussions about the effectiveness and inclusivity of these programs. Researchers continue to push for evidence-based, comprehensive sex education that addresses the needs of all students, irrespective of their geographic location.
The future of sex education in the USA relies on continued efforts to promote inclusivity, evidence-based approaches, and comprehensive programs that equip students with the knowledge and skills to make informed decisions about their sexual health and well-being. By prioritizing these approaches and encouraging open communication, we can strive toward a future where all young people have access to accurate information and resources to make informed choices about their sexual health and relationships.
References: Peipert, J. F., Madden, T., Allsworth, J. E., & Secura, G. M. (2012). Preventing unintended pregnancies by providing no-cost contraception. Obstetrics & Gynecology. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0b013e318273eb56  Kohler, P. K., Manhart, L. E., & Lafferty, W. E. (2008). Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. The Journal of adolescent health: official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 42(4), 344–351. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.08.026  Goldfarb, E. S., & Lieberman, L. D. (2021). Three Decades of Research: The Case for Comprehensive Sex Education. Journal of Adolescent Health, 68(1), 13-. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2020.07.036
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Image Credits: Map made with mapchart.net, infographic made by Emily Mendelson on Canva. Data from the Guttmacher Institute.