In order to make good decisions, one has to be informed. This is not the case for the vast majority of high schoolers taking sex education classes. It’s a statistic that many don’t want to acknowledge, but it’s a statistic that is true: around 40% of high schoolers have been sexually active. Not only that, but high schoolers are actually overrepresented for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) compared to their overall percentage of the population. Though the country reached record lows in teen pregnancy since the 1990s, the United States has maintained one of the highest rates in the developed world. In 2018, the Trump administration shifted federal funding towards programs that promote abstinence. Anti-abortion and abstinence-only promoter Diane Foley was appointed as the overseer of the Title X Family Planning Program, the government program that attempts to ensure affordable birth control and reproductive health services. Now it is up to the Biden administration to undo the damage and ensure comprehensive, inclusive sex education for our nation’s students.
Currently, only 39 states require some kind of sexual or STI education for students. Out of those, only 17 states require sex and STI education program content to be medically accurate. If we want our students to make smart choices, they first need the right information. It has been shown that students who do not receive proper sex education will seek knowledge elsewhere. This is often from peers or sources online that may be inaccurate or entirely false. This is especially true for LGBTQIA+ students, who are more likely to have a smaller network of trusted adults. Sex education is important now more than ever in the COVID-19 pandemic when students are more isolated, and must rely on whatever their parents teach them and/or whatever online sex education options their schools provide. With an onslaught of Zoom calls and extra stressors, sex education can easily fall through the cracks.
Public Health professor and sex education expert Eva Goldfarb suggests that sex education should actually be introduced even earlier in life and built upon, such as one would be taught the fundamentals of math and later expand upon those concepts. She says, “Basic foundational concepts such as personal boundaries, different family structures, healthy friendships, treating others with respect, and social-emotional skills need to be introduced early in elementary school. These become the building blocks for more sophisticated discussions in later grades.” High school classes prepare students to take on a more adult workload to prepare them for life outside of school. If our students are treated like young adults in this aspect, we should treat them the same way in sex education courses, and teach them to be good partners, good stewards of their bodies, and how to practice safe sex.
Abstinence-only sex “education” programs, often misleadingly referred to as “sexual risk avoidance” programs, are not only ineffective but attempt to cast shame onto students. By withholding important information about sexual health and protection, abstinence-only programs do more harm than good. It has been found that abstinence-only programs range from having no effect on teen pregnancy rates whatsoever to actually revealing a link between states that stress abstinence and higher teen pregnancy rates, including Texas, Mississipi, Louisiana, Arizona, and Arkansas. Not only are students receiving poor information, but the government is wasting money funding ineffective programs for purely ideological reasons. Abstinence-only programs do not just withhold information about safe sex, but about consent, healthy relationships, sexuality and gender, LGBTQIA+ sexual health, and often perpetuate stereotypes as well as construct harmful narratives tying virginity to self-worth. Instead, sex education should be based on well-researched and scientific data.
There are several programs that can help get students the medically accurate information they deserve. The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP) provides evidence-based information on safe sex and STI prevention, and has been widely successful. The Trump administration attempted to cut funding for this program in 2018, and was met with an onslaught of lawsuits that protected the program. The TPPP is now funded through 2023, as well as the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), which targets those aged 10-19 in rural areas, and those who experience homelessness or foster care situations. The PREP program not only teaches safe sex and STI prevention, but discusses important adult topics such as financial literacy and parent-child communication. Though these programs are currently in place for the next two years, the Biden administration can play a large part in the permanent advancement of sexual education.
In 2019, two important bills were introduced that could be the key to advancing sexual education in the United States. H.R. 2720, or the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act of 2019, would provide grants for specifically medically accurate sexual education and STI prevention programs, and would prohibit the teaching of racial and gender stereotypes. S.1530, or the Youth Access to Sexual Health Services Act of 2019, would provide grants to reach marginalized communities, and would prohibit the teaching of “medically unsound” information, as well as information that promotes stereotypes or is insensitive to those of different genders, sexualities, those who are pregnant, and survivors of sexual assault and harassment.
The Blueprint for Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice, endorsed by NOW, has also suggested several ways for the Biden administration to improve sex education and reproductive rights in general. Their demands include appointing only field experts with “a positive record on reproductive health, rights, and justice” to positions of power, as well as to cut all funding for the Title V “Sexual Risk Avoidance Education Program”, an abstinence program. In order to foster a next generation of healthy, informed adults who understand consent, we need to provide the necessary information. We cannot continue to pick and choose when we want to treat high schoolers like young adults. It is time to end the stigma surrounding sexual health and give our students the information they need and deserve to know.
Chloë Williams, Digital Department Intern
- NOW: Reproductive Rights and Justice: https://now.org/issues/abortion-rights-reproductive-issues/
- The Blueprint for Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice: https://reproblueprint.org/
- Most Sexually Active U.S. High School Students Make Decisions That Support Their Sexual Health: https://www.guttmacher.org/news-release/2018/most-sexually-active-us-high-school-students-make-decisions-support-their-sexual
- Reducing STI Cases: Young People Deserve Better Sexual Health Information and Services: https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2020/04/reducing-sti-cases-young-people-deserve-better-sexual-health-information-and-services
- Teen Pregnancy: Trends And Lessons Learned: https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2002/02/teen-pregnancy-trends-and-lessons-learned#
- Trump admin announces abstinence-focused overhaul of teen pregnancy program: https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/384208-trump-admin-announces-abstinence-focused-overhaul-of-teen-pregnancy
- The Trump Administration Wants to Give Anti-Choice Official More Power Over Reproductive Health Programs: https://rewirenewsgroup.com/article/2019/04/04/the-trump-administration-wants-to-give-anti-choice-official-more-power-over-reproductive-health-programs/
- Sex and HIV Education: https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education
- American Adolescents’ Sources of Sexual Health Information: https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/facts-american-teens-sources-information-about-sex
- A Call to Action: LGBTQ Youth Need Inclusive Sex Education: https://www.hrc.org/resources/a-call-to-action-lgbtq-youth-need-inclusive-sex-education
- Saving Sex Ed During COVID-19: https://www.usnews.com/news/healthiest-communities/articles/2020-10-29/sex-education-goes-online-amid-coronavirus-pandemic
- Experts: Sex Education Should Begin in Kindergarten: https://www.montclair.edu/newscenter/2020/12/14/experts-sex-education-should-begin-in-kindergarten/
- Spending on abstinence-only education not tied to fewer teen births: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-teens-pregnancy/spending-on-abstinence-only-education-not-tied-to-fewer-teen-births-idUSKCN1QM2A6
- Abstinence Only Education and Sex Education in the U.S.: https://www.thoughtco.com/abstinence-only-sex-education-3533767
- What the Research Shows: Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Sex Education Does Not Protect Teenagers’ Health: https://www.aclu.org/other/what-research-shows-government-funded-abstinence-only-programs-dont-make-grade#:~:text=Some%20abstinence%2Donly%2Duntil%2D,still%20have%20sex%20before%20marriage.
- About TPP: https://opa.hhs.gov/grant-programs/teen-pregnancy-prevention-program-tpp/about-tpp
- One Year of Successful Battles to Protect the TPP Program Against Trump Administration Unlawful Actions; Fights Remain as Administration Continues its Assault on Evidence: https://democracyforward.org/press/trump-administration-continues-unlawful-effort-to-dismantle-the-evidence-based-teen-pregnancy-prevention-program/
- About the Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) Program: https://powertodecide.org/teen-pregnancy-prevention-tpp-program
- About the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP): https://powertodecide.org/personal-responsibility-education-program-prep
- H.R.2720 – Real Education for Healthy Youth Act of 2019: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/2720
- S.1530 – Youth Access to Sexual Health Services Act of 2019: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/1530