Sex education in America gets a failing grade, according to experts. Here's why — and how they believe it can change.

A collage of a banana and halved peach as a metaphor for the topic of: What are teens learning about sex ed? It all depends where they live.
What are teens learning about sex ed? It all depends on where they live. (Collage: Getty Images / Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

Yahoo Life’s School Report Card: Sex Education series examines what adolescents are being taught about sexuality — and why it's about more than the birds and the bees.

Parents, depending on their political affiliations, are wildly split when it comes to what they want their kids to learn in U.S. schools, whether it’s about slavery, religion or gender identity.

But they are surprisingly aligned when it comes to one subject — or at least one basic aspect of it — and that’s sex education.

According to a new Pew Research survey, most parents (59%) would like their children to learn that there are safe and effective methods of birth control besides abstinence — tracking with past surveys, going back decades, which have found that parents want comprehensive sex ed for their teens, regardless of political affiliation.

Abstinence, though, is all that’s currently being taught in 16 states — and it’s required to be emphasized in the sex ed curricula of 30, according to a report by sex ed advocacy organization SIECUS (Sex Ed for Social Change). Further, only 29 states and the District of Columbia require any sex education at all, while 13 do not require it to be medically accurate. Only nine states have queer-inclusive sex ed policies, and six states explicitly require that sex ed lessons are anti-LGBTQ.

But state requirements aside, and with no federal standards in place, what is taught about sex and sexuality often comes down to the edicts of school districts, school boards and individual teachers, making for a U.S. patchwork of sex ed curricula that, according to educators and advocates, is a recipe for disaster — and one that leaves too many at a disadvantage.

What advocates are aiming for — and finding slow-moving success within certain areas of the country — is sex ed that is comprehensive, honest and inclusive, with the goal of helping young people navigate sexual development and grow into sexually healthy adults, according to the National Sex Education Standards, a comprehensive K-12 curriculum first developed in 2012 by a consortium of sex ed advocacy organizations called the Future of Sex Education.

“To be effective,” the standards state, “sex education must include medically accurate information about a broad range of topics such as consent and healthy relationships; puberty and adolescent development; sexual and reproductive anatomy and physiology; gender identity and expression; sexual identity and orientation; interpersonal and sexual violence; contraception, pregnancy, and reproduction; and HIV and other STDs/STIs. Quality sex education goes beyond delivering information. It provides young people with opportunities to explore their own identities and values along with the values and beliefs of their families and communities.”

For the moment, though, most American schools are falling short, offering “too little, too late,” says Nora Gelperin, director of sexuality education and training for Advocates for Youth, which has been working for comprehensive sex education since the 1980s. “Overall, I would give sex ed a failing grade."

How it got this way

If so many parents want at least some elements of comprehensive sex education— why is it so hard to find?

The answer is complex — and, unsurprisingly, political, say those on the frontlines.

It’s also rooted in history: For as long as there’s been sex ed — a topic first discussed and called for by the National Education Association in 1892 — there has been pushback over it, starting from the Catholic Church when Chicago became the first major city to implement sex ed for high schools in 1913. When a rampant STD outbreak during World War II got the government to allocate funds toward educating soldiers, sex ed offerings took off, with SIECUS being founded by a former Planned Parenthood medical director to promote progressive sex ed. But in the late 1960s, that became a target of religious conservatives, leading to the push for abstinence-only curricula, solidified during the Reagan administration.

Today, that fight continues, says Slaybaugh, pointing to the many battles playing out in classrooms and courtrooms, including over abortion rights, as being connected.

“There is a direct correlation between attacks on CRT [critical race theory], on book bans and on LGBTQIA+ youth, and the way legislation is being put together to continue to remove diversity from the classroom,” she says. “And even if there’s a state that allows or encourages sex education, these [new] abortion bans, we believe, will have implications on whether schools teach sex ed at all.”

It’s an impetus behind trying to adopt federal standards — such as the Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act (REAHYA), introduced in the House by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and in the Senate by Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.) in May. But for now, the way sex ed is taught is largely determined locally — and has cemented itself as an issue that conservatives have rallied around.

Because while parents may agree on the need to teach adolescents about safe abstinence alternatives, the common ground often ends there — especially when it comes to calls for LGBTQ inclusion and elementary-school discussions around gender identity, something conservative critics have inaccurately referred to as “grooming 101.”

A man holds a protest sign reading:
Protests against sex ed have a long history — as do counterprotests, such as this one in 2004, against then-President George W. Bush's plan to expand abstinence-only education. (Jeff Fusco/Getty Images) (Jeff Fusco via Getty Images)

In response, alternative guidelines have popped up, including the “K-12 Standards for Optimal Sexual Development,” which stresses the “benefits of postponing sex until healthy marriage.” The guide is from the Texas-based Medical Institute for Sexual Health, which a critical commentary in the Journal of Adolescent Health has called out as a “strong supporter of abstinence-only approaches."

Abstinence-only education, recently rebranded as “abstinence informed sexual risk avoidance,” says Slaybaugh, are programs “that we know do not work,” according to a multitude of data. “Basically, it says, ‘Don’t have sex.’ There’s no conversation about healthy relationships, around LGBTQIA+ identity, around consent, around boundary setting. It’s just: Don’t have sex.”

Notes Gelperin, “Abstinence-only is well documented to be completely ineffective, denying young people access to information about contraception and STD risk reduction.” And, she adds, “Those who have taken a so-called virginity pledge were actually at a higher risk of getting an STD, because it didn’t change behaviors. So it’s not only ineffective but actually harmful — and renders LGBTQ students invisible.”

Essential elements of sex ed, according to advocates

Including and affirming LGBTQ students should be an integral part of any sex ed curriculum, say advocates — especially considering that one in five Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ, and that the number is expected to rise. Also vital is information that is evidence-based and medically accurate, includes HIV and STD education and views sex as a vehicle for pleasure and relationships in general as promoting emotional health and respect.

“If you're sitting in a space learning about sex and sex education, but all of the examples that are being shown don't represent your experiences, how are you supposed to intake that information? We need more affirming programs for young people,” Monica Edwards, federal policy manager for URGE (Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity), which released a sweeping 2021 report about the need for sex ed to be LGBTQ-inclusive, tells Yahoo Life. “Our sex education should be not only medically accurate, but it should be affirming for all people, regardless of your sexual orientation, your gender identity, your race, your ethnicity, your immigration status.”

A woman at a school board meeting holds up a sign reading
Battles over sex ed, transgender equality and more are now frequently played out at school board meetings, such as this one in Placentia, Calif., in March 2022, over the proposed ban on CRT (critical race theory). (Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images) (MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Melanie Willingham-Jaggers is the executive director at GLSEN, a network of educators, students and activists advocating for LGBTQ inclusion in schools. Regarding inclusive sex ed, she says, LGBTQ identities should get more than a quick mention.

“Inclusive education does not assume heterosexuality in its definitions of sexual activities or discussions of romantic relationships,” Willingham-Jaggers tells Yahoo Life. “It pays more than token attention to transgender people, intersex people and gender-expansive people. It avoids relegating LGBTQ+ issues to ‘special topics’ and instead includes discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity throughout the curriculum.”

Unfortunately, she notes, "right now schools are unsafe and unwelcoming for most LGBTQ+ students, which can have negative impacts on health and well-being.”

The same could be said for sex ed that focuses solely on risk-avoidance and reproduction.

“Female pleasure has basically been erased from the idea of sex in our society — and we teach our youth that male ejaculation into female bodies equals sex,” says Slaybaugh. “And that’s challenging, because it forms this notion that male sexuality is uncontrollable, like a speeding train — you can’t stop it — which creates a clash when it comes to the idea of consent. … There is a connection between pleasure and consent, which requires a skill set of communication.”

Further, says Gelperin, teaching about recognizing pleasure can also help young people identify when something is wrong. “Young people are in a hypersexualized worlds these days … but there is very little conversation about how sex between partners should feel good and how that’s the main motivation people have … and that if it doesn’t feel pleasurable, then something should be done differently.”

How parents can effect change

The upcoming midterm elections provide a perfect opportunity, says Jaclyn Friedman, founder and executive director of Educate US, the political-action arm of SIECUS.

“We think we can make the most impact at school board races right out of the gate,” she says. “And the reality is, if you're running for school board in 2022, you need to be able to have to talk about sex education, whether it's a core issue for you or not — because it is absolutely a core issue for right wing extremists.”

This year, Educate US is focusing its efforts on Massachusetts, New Jersey, Michigan and Texas to counteract coordinated right-wing platforms of "parental rights" to push back against LGBTQ-inclusive education, lessons on racism and comprehensive sex ed.

“The whole idea that this is about parental rights is a lie, because the real majority of parents wants this [sex] education to remain,” says Friedman. “But the extremists have become very good at, and have a lot of money for, making it look like they are the majority. They bus people into school board meetings. There have been patterns of threats against school committee members who don't vote the way they want them to. … It’s real intense out there for school committee members who never expected to be at the center of this kind of extremist attack.”

It’s inspired new candidates, she explains, “because they’re like, ‘I don't want these extremists to take over my school board,’ and we want to help those people.”

That means supporting candidates who advocate and vote for moving the school to be in closer compliance with the National Sex Ed Standards.

Beyond local elections, Friedman suggests parents “start tuning in to what's going on at your school district level. What are they teaching? What's the narrative? Even if you discover that you like the curriculum that's being taught, which would be delightful discovery, are there currently people trying to undo that? And when is the next school board meeting? What’s on the agenda? And what organizations near you are already working on this? Because you don't have to go it alone.”

She understands that it can be nerve-racking to take a risk by speaking out about sex ed, for fear of being the only one. “But what I want people to know is that if you start talking about this issue, you will quickly find that you are not alone," she says, "and that there are a lot of people who want to take action with you.”

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