Gaps in sex education in the United States can leave students in the dark, while other countries have programs that positively affect student health and knowledge.
Students across the country have vastly different experiences learning about a somewhat taboo but hugely important health topic: sexual health education or sex education.
According to Sex Ed for Social Change, or SIECUS, 29 states and DC require sex education as of July 2022. But 17 of those states require abstinence to be emphasized, and only 11 of them require the program to be medically accurate. Some states choose to leave discussions of healthy relationships, birth control, and sexual orientation entirely out of the conversation.
“Due to the lack of policy direction and implementation at the federal level, the United States has a patchwork of varying laws that determine what and if sex education is taught,” said Michelle Slaybaugh, director social impact and strategic communications at SIECUS. “When it comes to education, policy, decisions have largely been left to local control, so we’re talking about very local at the school board level, not even at the city or state level. That’s very, very local.”
Currently at the federal level, SIECUS is a group working to pass the Real Health Youth Education and Access Act. This legislation promotes comprehensive sex education, which means giving young people the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy choices about their sex life, and the law ensures that access to this education is protected.
In March, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022, but funding for comprehensive sex-ed programs is not included.
At the state level, according to the SIECUS mid-year report, the number of bills introduced this year aimed at restricting sex education was nearly equal to the number of bills introduced advancing sex education. But more regressive bills have passed in states this legislative session than progressive ones.
“I think there’s this big myth that if we teach young people about sex, they’re going to go out there and have it,” Slaybaugh said. “The evidence doesn’t show that. Also, I think it’s very important for us to understand that age-appropriate or developmentally-appropriate sex education is key.”
A study from Georgetown University shows that sex education helps with many things, such as preventing unplanned pregnancies, maternal deaths, unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted diseases. But a survey by the Public Religion Institute found that nearly a quarter of millennials didn’t learn sex education in middle school or high school.
There is also a big gap in sex education that is inclusive and speaks to LGBTQ+ identities. Less than 10% of LGBTQ+ students say their school’s sex education is inclusive. When talking about gender identity and orientation, this is sometimes where the curriculum can get “medically inaccurate.”
“Medically accurate sex education is essential to promoting long-term health outcomes, and part of that, which I think is really where we see the rub, is this idea of gender norms, gender stereotypes and guidance,” Slaybaugh said.
Florida in particular has become a hot spot when it comes to sex education and what can or should be taught. New laws there, like what critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, are limiting discussion of sexuality and gender identity for some elementary school students.
Katie Lagrone, a correspondent for Newsy’s sister station in Tampa, Fla., explains a confusing mix of standards about whether the new laws change old sex-ed policies.
“In Florida, while laws require health education to include adolescent dating and disease control, we found that there was in fact no nationwide sex education program. of the state,” Lagrone said. “What students are taught about sexual and reproductive health and how they do it is left to individual school boards who approve policies, principals who interpret them, and instructors who ultimately expand them for students. …we found about a third of Florida’s 67 school districts teach students, even high schoolers, abstinence-only.”
Studies show that teaching abstinence alone does not prevent teens from having sex. In fact, a 2019 study by the CDC found that by grade 12, more than half of Florida teens surveyed had ever had sex, with some STD rates among Florida teens four times higher than the national average.
In some counties that have adopted this abstinence-only method of education in Florida, teenage birth rates are actually higher. A district spokesperson told Newsy the limits are because they “respect the rights of parents.”
Elsewhere in the world, some countries have been recognized for their comprehensive sex education programs that help combat these issues, particularly in Europe.
In the Netherlands, the law requires that all primary school students receive sex education. It starts from the age of 4, but they don’t talk about complete birds and bees at this age. They just cover the basics of healthy relationships.
In the United States, some people say it’s too young to teach sex education, but three decades of research shows that sex education can help prevent child abuse.
On average, teenagers in the Netherlands also wait longer to have sex than in Europe or the United States. Researchers found that most young people in the Netherlands had had “wanted and fun” first sexual experiences, while many American teenagers said they wished they had waited longer. having sex for the first time.
The Netherlands has one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. Dutch teenagers are among the most likely to use birth control pills, although this may be partly because contraception is readily available.
The Netherlands is also working to educate parents on how to talk to their children about sex to get everyone on the same page.
In Denmark, for a long time, their sex education program focused on preventing unplanned pregnancies and promoting safer sex. In 2015, the country’s birth rate fell below the rate needed to maintain the population, and Danish authorities went so far as to encourage people to have babies at a younger age. At the time, only 5% of teenage girls in Denmark had babies. This rate was six times higher in the United States.
In recent years, the birth rate has started to rise again. Although neither Denmark nor any other country has a perfect system, they have seen results that other places could emulate.
This highlights some good models of comprehensive sex education, but there are also other countries, like the United States, where it’s not widely taught, where there are inconsistencies, or where it’s not available at all. Experts stress the importance of ensuring students have the information they need to lead healthy lives.
“We really need to push for something that is rooted in age-appropriate, medically accurate and affirming content that is taught by qualified educators to be able to provide the most comprehensive and age-appropriate education. age around sexuality as possible,” Slaybaugh said.