You remember the sex ed scene in Mean Girls, right? Coach Carr famously spouts off, “at your age, you’re going to have a lot of urges. You’re going to want to take off your clothes, and touch each other. But if you do touch each other, you *will* get chlamydia… and die.” It’s funny because it’s absurd. But lately I’ve been wondering — what exactly is mandated for high school sex ed? Could someone really stand up in front of teens and tell them chlamydia is spelled “k…l…a” and that sex will kill them? I took a deep dive into the sex ed regulations for all 50 states.
Let’s start with the basics. It’s really difficult to measure what’s actually being taught (or not) in the classroom. But, most sex education programs can be categorized in two ways:
The first is comprehensive sex education, which teaches abstinence as the best method for pregnancy and STI prevention, but also provides factually accurate information about condoms and contraception. There’s often an exploration of communication, values, culture, and interpersonal factors of sexuality.
The second is abstinence-only sex education, which discourages teens and young adults from having sex before marriage, and usually censors information about STIs and pregnancy prevention. (See a great side-by-side comparison here.)
In the U.S, the average age at which a person loses their virginity is around 17. So, they’re likely in high school (great timing for some information!) But…only 24 states require public schools to teach sex education. And a mere 20 states require that sex and/or HIV education be medically, factually, or technically accurate (yup, you read that right).
As a result, teens today are less likely than they were a decade ago to have used a condom during their last sexual encounter (about 59 percent said they did in 2015 compared to 63 percent in 2003).
To keep it simple, Guttmacher Institute created a table that breaks the requirements down by state, if you want to name names.
The U.S. might be alone
Heather D. Boonstra of the Guttmacher Institute, says, “In European countries, people tend to be more accepting of teen sexuality, and more holistic in their approach to sexuality education.” She goes on to explain that in the U.S., teens often feel ashamed to be using contraception, while teens in Europe often feel irresponsible if they don’t use contraception. Boonstra sees the direct impact that comprehensive sex education can have on pregnancy rates, abortion rates, and other health statistics.
Patti Britton, AASECT Past President and Co-founder of Sexology University, weighed in too, sharing, “All around the world, I see a quiet revolution. People claiming the right to pleasure. But I do not see that happening in the U.S. I see us clamping down on sexual rights, even though we have just legalized same sex marriages, even though we are experiencing a revolution in trans acceptance. In one two-month period, two gigantic political and social shifts have occurred but, at the same time, we’re still a very conservative country”.
As Stephanie Zaza, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Division of Adolescent and School Health shares, “young people who have multiple sex partners, don’t use condoms, and use drugs or alcohol before sex are at higher risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. School-based sex education is a critical opportunity to provide the skills and information they need to protect themselves”.
In 2016, the CDC updated their recommended list to 19 critical sexual education topics. It covers what you might expect, from condom usage and preventative care, to other methods of contraception. New to this list (compared to the former 16 topics), are subjects like: gender roles, gender identity, and gender expression as well as sexual orientation. Educators are also recommended to teach communication and negotiation skills, as well as decision-making and healthy relationship content.
Clearly, not many states are following the CDC recommendations (Planned Parenthood estimates less than half). So, for students who live in one of the states where their sex ed teacher might be misspelling chlamydia and teaching that pregnancy is fatal, they’ll have to get their information elsewhere.
Luckily, a few great organizations like Planned Parenthood, Power to decide, Sex, etc. and Iwannaknow (love this name) are attempting to fill the sex ed gap. And LOLA created their new Sexual Wellness Kit, offering products for a healthy sex life, along with their comprehensive guide to sexual wellness.