By Amanda Peterson
Sex education is a broad term used to describe education about human sexual anatomy, sexual reproduction, sexual intercourse, and other aspects regarding human sexual behavior. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a comprehensive sex education is “developmentally and culturally responsive, science-based and medically accurate information on a broad set of topics related to sexuality, including human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual health and society and culture” (USC Department of Nursing). On a more general basis, a comprehensive sex education gives students scientifically accurate information on contraception, sexually transmitted infections and diseases, human development, anatomy, and reproductive health. Information considered scientifically, or medically, accurate is typically decided by the state.
Even though comprehensive sex education exists to help protect students, only thirty states and Washington D.C. require that sex education is taught in schools (National Conference of State Legislatures 2020). Meanwhile, thirty-seven states require that their sex education programs include abstinence (Kaiser Family Foundation 2018). Abstinence only until marriage (AOUM) education teaches that refraining from sex until marriage is the expected standard for teenagers. This type of education has many issues involved with it. Not only has it been proven to be ineffective, but it amplifies heteronormativity and the patriarchy. Despite this, federal funding is focused on abstinence only education. Instead, funding needs to go towards comprehensive sex education so schools can provide students with the best information and keep teenagers safe. Congress needs to identify these issues and provide funding for a new curriculum to better educate adolescence.
The call for sex education began as early as 1912, when the National Education Association called for sexuality education training programs. This movement was further pushed forward when the U.S. Public Health Services called sexuality education an urgent need in 1940. The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s served as a solidification for the need for sex education. However, the declaration for sex education in schools caused extreme controversy and organized opposition against the mission. Along with opposition groups, federal funding has overwhelmingly been focused on AOUM. Title V, first created in 1966 and rebranded in 2017, is an example of this funding. The original requirement for the funding was that schools taught monogamous relationships in the context of marriage was “the expected standard of human sexual activity”. Under the Trump administration, this was rebranded as Sexual-Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE), which mandated teaching “education exclusively on sexual risk avoidance (meaning voluntarily refraining from sexual activity)” (Malamud 2018). Despite this, President Obama did implement two funding streams for teen pregnancy prevention: Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) and the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP). While these programs are more comprehensive than SRAE, funding is widely up to local and federal governments. In addition, these funding streams began in 2010. After eleven years and the rebranded SRAE, these programs could use more funding and updated information for a truly comprehensive education. This modification is necessary because current sex education is heteronormative, upholds the patriarchy, and is ineffective in reducing sexual encounters between teenagers.
Figure 1: A Graph Showing Sex Education Requirements In Each State
Source: USC Department of Nursing
A comprehensive sex education curriculum should be put in place so members of the LGBTQ+ community feel included. Not only does AOUM stress avoiding sexual endeavours, but it insinuates that sex can solely occur between a male and a female. This completely disregards teenagers who identify as nonbinary, transgender, and those attracted to the same sex. In addition, the existence of an abstinence only policy often means conversations about sex are not institutionally supported. Therefore, funding is not provided to clubs that provide an emphasis on sexual health. Gender and Sexuality Alliance or Gay and Straight Alliance (GSA), is a student-run organization focused on racial, gender, and educational justice and often provides a safe space for LGBTQ+ students in schools across America. GSAs discuss sexual health for the LGBTQ+ community as part of their mission. However, “the access of sexual-minority students and their allies to school space increasingly is being challenged as obscene by this tangential use of abstinence-only curricular policy” (Mayo 2008). Schools can prevent GSAs from existing on campuses because they violate the abstinence only policy. Not only does this leave LGBTQ+ students with questions about their sexual health, but it is discriminatory.
The AIDS crisis also targets LGBTQ+ youth. According to the CDC, teens who identify as LBGTQ+ are more likely to contract STDs in comparison to their heterosexual peers (USC Department of Nursing). Without learning information about how to prevent STDs, or how to prevent STDs when not having vaginal sex, members of the LGBTQ+ teen community are at a disproportionately high risk. Overall, there is no institutional support for non-heterosexual sexual expression.
Another reason why comprehensive sex education is important is because abstinence policies are often misogynistic. Women are much more likely than men to be sexually assaulted. One in every six women have been victims of rape or attempted rape. Furthermore, those aged 12-34 are at the highest risk for rape and sexual assault. In addition, 1 out of every 10 rape victims are male (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). While this may seem contradictory, it actually demonstrates the fact that male rape victims are often ignored because of toxic masculinity. This amplifies the patriarchy because it insinuates that women should be dominated and men should not show emotions. By teaching consent, teenagers are taught that sex should be a mutual exchange, not a situation where either party feels disappointed or uncomfortable. Yet as of 2019, only eight states required discussion of consent in the curriculum (LeDuc 2019). It is extremely important for people to begin their understanding of sex by knowing that consent should be freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific (Planned Parenthood). It should also be clear that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. Consent is a crucial aspect of sex that needs to be included in education.
Teen pregnancy can also be considered a patriarchal issue. Parenthood is the leading reason teenage girls drop out of school, and more than half of teen mothers never finish high school (American Society for the Positive Care of Children). Getting pregnant typically forces the girl to drop out of school and often struggle to provide for their own child. The boy is able to stay in school while the female has to miss out on her education. In addition, teen pregnancy rates among African American and Hispanic teenage girls is over two and a half times higher than the white teen pregnancy rate (American SPCC). Therefore, blocking information about how to prevent teen pregnancy continually holds up the idea of the patriarchy: the idea that the man is in charge.
Lastly, abstinence only education should be stopped because it is ineffective. Statistics show that fifty-five percent of male and female high school students have had sex by the age of eighteen (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2017). In “Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases,” Douglas Kirby, Ph.D. found no strong evidence that abstinence only programs delay the initiation of sexual intercourse or reduce the number of sexual partners. Kirby did find, however, that forty percent of the comprehensive programs achieved delaying the initiation of sexual intercourse, reducing the amount of partners, and increasing use of contraceptives. In addition, AOUM policies have not been proven to reduce the amount of teen pregnancies or STD contractions. Sex education focused on abstinence does not delay sex. Instead, it makes teenagers unprepared for sex.
The ineffectiveness of abstinence based policies is also evident when comparing this type of education to other countries’ sex education. Even though the rate of teen pregnancies are lower than previous times, the United States currently holds one of the highest rates in countries in the global north (USC Department of Nursing). Furthermore, when comparing sex education of the United States with the Netherlands, it is clear that the Netherlands is more successful. This curriculum focuses on respect, intimacy, safety, and sexual diversity. Dutch adolescents are top birth control users, and nine out of ten teens used contraceptives the first time they had sex. In addition, the Netherlands have some of the lowest teen pregnancy and STD rates (Maffett 2018). Even when looking at different policies in the United States, a difference in rates is evident. For example, Mississippi focuses on AOUM and Vermont implements a more comprehensive approach. In 2020, Mississippi had the highest STD index score and Vermont had the lowest (Alarms 2020). Furthermore, Mississippi is second in the country in terms of teen pregnancy rates (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States 2014) There is a clear connection between being taught information about safe sex and using that information in real life.
Categorical grants should be provided to public high schools which follow a comprehensive sex education curriculum. This grant would lay out the guidelines required to receive funding, and it should be the only way to federally receive funding for sex education programs. A good outline of what this grant should require is shown by the bill, HF 358, which was recently sponsored by Minnesota Representative, Sydney Jordan. This bill includes medically accurate information on “sexual development, health and reproduction; bodily autonomy and healthy relationships, including relationships involving diverse sexual orientations and gender identities; abstinence and other methods for preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections; and sexual consent” (Kats 2021). Even if this bill passes in Minnesota, other public schools in different states cannot be required to follow this curriculum. However, if Congress only provides federal funding to schools which follow this more comprehensive outline, it provides a larger incentive to eliminate AOUM education. Therefore, the money that used to be provided for AOUM programs can now be channeled into these new programs.
Abstinence only until marriage programs need to be replaced with a more comprehensive alternative. AOUM is heternormative, patriarchal, and ineffective. Congress needs to provide categorical grants to public high schools which follow a more comprehensive curriculum based on the Minnesota bill, HF 358. This means that funding should only go towards sex education that includes information on the LGBTQ+ community, consent, how to use contraceptives to prevent STDs and teen pregnancy, and other information necessary for safe sex. Overall, this funding for a new curriculum could create a safer and more informed generation of teenagers.
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