We all want our children to understand basic health and safety precautions. For example, although it might not be common knowledge that a working fire alarm can increase your chances of survival in a fire by 50%, all children are taught to understand how to respond to a fire alarm.
Most would agree that understanding one’s own sexuality and relationships is hardly less important than understanding fire safety precautions. And yet, out of the 50 United States, 21 of them do not currently mandate sex education classes.
That may be about to change for a few of them, however. Right now, New York, Washington, and Massachusetts are all considering legislation to make sex education courses mandatory in their public schools.
Giving Sex Education a New Look
For many years, public school sex ed programs have emphasized one key point: teens ought to delay sex. And if they will not delay sex, then they must at least use birth control to avoid pregnancy and condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
Right now, an increasing number of states are bringing in new sex education programs that their proponents claim will help students build healthier relationships and feel more comfortable with their sexuality. Teachers are being encouraged to talk to students about such important matters as consent, and many are catering some messages to gay and transgender teens so they won’t feel left out or experience bullying.
These changes are taking place during shifting attitudes about gender identity and sexual orientation. Same-sex marriage laws have recently changed, and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, an updated discussion on sexuality seems perfectly timed.
New York, Massachusetts, and Washington state are three of the legislators considering expanded sex ed curricula this year. Although 21 states don’t currently mandate public schools to provide sex education, even education departments in red states continue to offer guidelines for school districts.
Some believe that the United States is facing a new tipping point in the area of sexuality, similar to what it experienced during the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1980s. It was during that time that then surgeon general, Dr. C. Everett Koop, urged schools to teach sex education in order to help prevent spread of the virus. The topic of sex ed was even more controversial then than it is today, but his statements provided the necessary push to normalize public discussion of safe sex, especially for students.
In just the last few years, different states have passed laws intended to help teach students not to pressure one another into sexual behavior. How to clearly give consent, and how to recognize when someone isn’t giving consent, were particular matters the laws hoped to help. Before these laws were passed, most teenagers didn’t learn about healthy sex, sexuality, and relationships in a formal setting until in college.
Today, only eight states and the District of Columbia require schools to discuss consent, while 10 states have education programs in place specific to gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender teens. As more and more babies are born each day, however, this lack of information will continue to persist like a domino effect.
In spite of this progress, sex education continues to be a major subject of controversy. A handful of bills turned up in Arizona and Alaska to prohibit discussions about homosexuality. Religious conservatives particularly tend to be opposed to all forms of sex ed in schools, generally taking the position that such things ought to be taught in the home if they’re talked about at all. Others feel that each school district ought to be allowed to choose its own standing on sex education, or that only older students should receive any sex education at all.
In spite of controversy and confusing variables, we seem to have made progress as a country when it comes to the sexual health of our students. Since the 1980s when sex ed first became a major topic of debate, there has been a significant drop in the number of teenagers having sex. According to a recent federal study, only 42% of females and 44% of males between the ages of 15 and 19 have ever had intercourse. Compare that to another study in 1988, which found that 51% of female teens and 60% of male teens had ever had sex. According to federal officials, this delaying of sex is also thought to have reduced teen births.
Regardless of these statistics, many people still feel that teaching sex education at a young age would encourage sexual activity among minors rather than diminish it. While there’s conflicting research on the question of whether or not sex education leads to increased sexual activity, most experts seem to agree that it’s better that children learn about sexuality instead of staying in the dark.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that even if the new legislations are passed, parents will still have the opportunity to review sex ed curriculums with teachers. They will also continue to hold the right to have their children be exempt from participating in sex education classes. This way, conservative parents who want more control over their children’s education, or parents who want to teach their children about sexuality and relationships themselves, will continue to have those options.
Many experts and spokespeople have said that if children are not taught about sexuality and relationships, we will be doing them a disservice to their health. Even government officials in Massachusetts have begun sharing information about sex education and the importance of utilizing it in public schools. Pointing out the rampant exposure to unrealistic or unhealthy portrayals of sex in media, they add that teens need to be given the tools to navigate sex and relationships safely from a position of expertise, or they will make do with inaccurate, and often harmful, conclusions they make on their own.
Limo drivers average around 105 trips each week, but that pales in comparison to the more than 25 million children entrusted to school bus drivers. And yet for many of those children, safe sex and healthy relationship practices aren’t taught, either at school or at home. Teachers and experts hope that will begin to change as more states begin mandated sex ed classes.