The Trials and Tribulations of Sexual Health Education in America
By Sam Stroozas
In the twenty-first century we have the hope as consumers for every part of our education to be advanced. We want the best for our youth – a well rounded school that challenges and prepares them for a brighter future. Each topic of K-12 education is heightened as a responsibility of adulthood, but the topic of sexual education is often left out of this advancement in curriculum. If we want the best for our children, why are we not preparing them in understanding the most intimate and personal subjects of their lives?
“Comprehensive” sex education is not fulfilling enough for a complete understanding of the subject. Many schools often take the approach of gender based sexual education, which not only instills heterosexism, but promotes gender roles in future relationships as the norm. In an article for the New York Times, writer Aaron Carroll claims that under the Trump administration this ideology is increasing, as the government, “canceled funding for 81 projects that are part of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program.” These projects worked on gathering more data to learn how students are able to truly understand the fundamentals of sex education and apply it to their own sexual experiences.
With this funding cancelled there has been an overall promotion of abstinence-only sex education, which is seen as “a goal more than a teaching point.” When we teach our youth that there is a higher standard for women who say no to sex and that men want nothing but sex, we ensure hypermasculinity and sexism prevails in and outside of the classroom. This association of education and gender roles only works further to separate sexual based education and pushes the responsibility of safe and consensual sex on women instead of it being an encouraged conversation between the parties involved. We are teaching our youth that sex is something to be terrified of by associating sex with destructive behavior and deeming pleasure a sin. We brainwash students into fearing sexual behavior rather than welcoming it as a normalized marker of adolescence.
In a different New York Times article, reporter Anna North stated that since 2011, the Department of Education has “required that all middle and high schools teach sex education as part of health class... But the requirement came with little enforcement and compliance has been spotty.” Teachers are not receiving up to date information and much of their teaching contains undertones of abstinence. Louise Langheier, chief executive of Peer Health Exchange said, “Any great sexual and health education program should be focused on helping young people identify what their goals are and then how they can advocate for themselves to achieve those goals” .
Teaching fully integrated and intersectional sex education will not encourage students to have sex at a premature age, but it will prepare them to be smart about their sexual decisions and instill a sense of clarity that abstinence-only education alludes to as terror. Pregnancy is usually the only outcome of sex that is educated about. Reproductive health advocates advise that “students should learn not just about avoiding sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy, but also about consent, a variety of gender identities and sexual orientations, healthy relationships and making informed decisions about sexual behavior”.
Sex education is about so much more than sex. Students need a place where they can talk about gender identity and sexuality in a normalized manner. We need to teach students that physical abuse is not the only sign of an unhealthy relationship, and consent is required for all sexual acts. Encouraging sex education in schooling is not encouraging adolescent sex. It ensures a comprehensive understanding of the role sex plays in our lives and helps prepare teenagers for healthy relationships with themselves and their partners. We have the right to our autonomy, and abstinence-only education teaches students that this right belongs to society, not them.
Teaching the youth about sexual health is not a hard concept, but a feared one. Planned Parenthood explains true comprehensive sex education as “…supporting the efforts of parents and teachers to provide honest, accurate, and affirming information to young people about sexuality, and help diminish the impact of some of the negative or inaccurate sexual messages and stereotypes often found in the media and sometimes supported by their peers. Furthermore, such programs empower youth and make responsible choices that protect their health, well-being and provide support for academic achievement.”
We all want our children to be the best educated and prepared for their future, so we have no excuse for leaving out the basic foundations of an inclusive sexual education. The lack of education surrounding sexual health depicts to youth that society does not care about students’ right to learn about sex as a normalized topic, and aims to sustain sexual health as a demonized stream of conversation.