In the pantheon of adolescent horrors, sex education is up there with your eighth-grade yearbook picture. It’s mortifying and moralistic, usually delivered by a gym teacher who’s as sweaty as you are, and worst of all, there’s not enough of it.
We educate American kids about their sexual health in a way that leaves students poorly informed, forces queer kids to fend for themselves, and earns us all a grade of incomplete.
For everyone’s sake, we need to change it—and we can. We can give all American students, of all genders and orientation, the information they need to make strong choices for their physical and emotional health. As adults, we just have to speak to kids honestly and non-judgmentally about the full range and limitless possibilities of human sexuality.
Stop giggling—it could happen.
Though the world has changed since I was in sixth grade and poor Sister Helen had to tell us the facts of life—penis goes in here, baby comes out there, now don’t even think about any of this again until you’re married—American curricula have barely evolved.
Only 24 states plus D.C. mandate sex education, though they don’t all cover what the Centers for Disease Control consider essential to sex ed, which includes topics like decision-making skills to reduce sexual risks and the proper use of condoms.
According to Samantha Cyrulnik-Dercher, Federal Policy Director of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, “If they’re getting sex education at all, very few students are getting the high bar of sex education that we think is possible and best for people.”
The practical guidance American schools offer centers largely around prevention of sexually-transmitted infections, a strategy sex educator and host of Loveline Dr. Chris Donaghue says is mostly a cover. “It’s very fear-based. A lot of sex education is really rooted in parental anxiety and keeping parents comfortable, and not actually doing what education is supposed to do, which is to provide information, based in reality, on what’s honestly happening.”
Recent events have proven that American schools can update their lesson plans, as the #MeToo movement has nudged consent into the classroom conversation. In 2018, bills passed in Illinois and Missouri that require sex ed to include information on consent and sexual assault. “It seems that folks can agree, even if they come from disparate points of view, that consent is something we need to be focusing more on,” says Cyrulnik-Dercher. “Starting consent education at college orientation is not working.”
But otherwise, what’s happening in many American schools is still the same old thing: abstinence-centered sex education. “The research tells us that these abstinence-only programs, which they’ve now rebranded as Sexual Risk Avoidance programs, prioritize scare tactics, withhold information from young people, and just don’t work,” says Cyrulnik-Dercher. Though avoidance of STIs and unplanned pregnancies is important to teach, “it’s only a small part of what young people are telling us that they need. Young people want and need sex ed that’s accurate and inclusive and empowering.”
Inclusive is the key word here, because although the heterosexual, cisgendered kids who are centered in American sex education are getting the bare minimum, one thing they are getting is acknowledged. If you’re young and LGBTQ, far too many sex education curricula send the message that you simply don’t exist.
“American sex education is far too heterocentric, meaning it only centers the heterosexual lifestyle and operates from the idea that nothing else exists outside of that,” says Donaghue. While this likely flows from the same parental and school-board timidity that keeps us funding useless abstinence-only programs, the motive is irrelevant: “Whether you support anything outside of the heterosexual framework doesn’t really matter. It still exists, so education should at least acknowledge it.”
In America, many educators simply can’t. Students in seven states are living under “No Homo Promo” laws, dictating that if sex education is provided, it must either cover LGBTQ people in a negative way, or not mention them at all.
Alabama law requires classes to emphasize “in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”
AIDS education in Arizona cannot reveal even the concept of safe homosexual sex. Health classes in South Carolina “may not include a discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles, except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases.” Even if queer and trans-affirming curricula did exist, teachers in these states are expressly forbidden to teach them. (The other states with No Homo Promo laws are Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas.)
“Queer youth, transgender and nonconforming youth, youth of color, youth with disabilities, youths involved in the criminal justice system, these are all groups of people that have not only been marginalized by the healthcare system in general, but that have been specifically and historically left out of the sex ed conversation” says Cyrulnik-Dercher.
These days, kids have access to a lot more self-guided education via the internet, but…well, you’ve been on the internet. “What the internet tells kids is not necessarily factual or healthy or supportive, and thinking that we can leave young people to their own devices and let them muddle their way through the confusing amount of information out there isn’t right. We need to be providing in-the-classroom sex ed that queer young people need, sex ed that young people with disabilities need.”
In my personal pre-internet case as a gay kid, being left out of the conversation led to what I can only call on-the-job training: I fumbled through a lot of my early same-sex sexual experiences because I had no idea what to do or expect. When a student doesn’t learn something in a classroom context, and can’t go to his or her queer peers because there aren’t any, there’s no other way to learn but by doing.
While a good deal of any person’s practical sex education does come from real-life trial and error, why not offer every kid a solid foundation? “People are going to learn by their own life experiences, but let’s set young people up for success,” says Cyrulnik-Dercher. “You’re able to make decisions about what you’re going to do outside the classroom because of what you get in the classroom.”
And as Donaghue points out, “the bulk of sex ed curricula fail to even recognize that most sex is for pleasure. Few people that are having sex are actually doing it for procreative reasons. We need to be talking straight sex and gay sex and trans sex and non-gender sex. Right now, most of it is procreation centric, which then also covertly is heterocentric.”
Queer kids need to be acknowledged so that they can make healthy choices. Trans kids need to learn about gender identities outside of the binary so that they don’t have to keep hearing that there’s something wrong with them. Everybody needs to start learning consent much earlier, so that young kids are able to tell a good touch from a bad touch. Practical, non-judgmental sex education can empower kids to recognize and report abuse, can lower rates of bullying and suicide among queer kids, and make everyone healthier.
Consider The Netherlands, where sex education can begin as early as age four. Children are encouraged to explore their bodies without the burden of shame, with the idea that as their judgment develops, they will learn what is and is not socially appropriate. Dutch students are given sex ed that includes not only sexual health, but assertiveness and tolerance, with the aim of reducing sexual coercion and homophobic behavior.
And it works: Studies show that students who get more inclusive sex education engage in less name-calling and are more likely to intervene when an LGBTQ peer is being bullied. And it bears pointing out that, as restrictive abortion bans creep across our country, American teenagers experience unplanned pregnancies between four and five times the rate of their Dutch peers, while still having more than twice as many abortions per capita. It’s possible that the very thing Republican politicians are seeking to reduce by law goes down naturally by way of education.
The only thing our more delicate approach to sex education really protects is the squeamish sensibilities of parents and school boards. “The sex ed that they have in the Netherlands is incredible,” says Cyrulnik-Dercher, “and Americans would balk at any of that. I don’t want to blame it all on the Puritans, but we definitely have a limited and restrictive view on sex that doesn’t exist in some other countries that are otherwise like ours.”
In America, we seem to conflate education with promotion. We fail to speak frankly about sex to our kids because we’re afraid it will give them permission to do it. But when we think about the Mothers Against Drunk Driving approach to education, which seeks simply to acknowledge behavior and minimize risk, this idea falls apart.
“We educate kids not to drive drunk,” says Dr. Donaghue, “and we trust that that’s not the same as telling them to go and drink.” Kids aren’t drinking more since we started giving them information about how alcohol affects their bodies—they’re just dying less.
The news isn’t all terrible. Colorado’s legislature has just passed a bill that if sex education is taught, it must be evidence-based, medically accurate, and inclusive. The bill forbids public schools from pushing any particular religious ideology or doctrine, and from using shame-based or stigmatizing language. It adds consent to the curriculum and requires classes to address the health needs of trans, intersex, and LGBQ individuals.
“We’re not just failing our young people by failing to provide them with the sex ed that they need,” says Cyrulnik-Dercher. “We’re failing the country. If legislators in Alabama and Georgia and Ohio and Missouri knew more about how the reproductive system works, we might be seeing way fewer forced birth bills.”
We might also see healthier, happier American kids, lower rates of STIs, unplanned pregnancy and suicide, and fewer instances of sexual violence and harassment. We might even see levels of gender equity that put us in the same league as the rest of the developed world.
We really are capable of doing better by our kids. We just need to grow up.