The Importance of Comprehensive Sex Education: ‘Ignorance Breeds Vulnerability’

Comprehensive, accurate sex education has been proven to keep teens safer and healthier — so why are we still shielding them from the realities of sexuality and relationships?

Whether they learn about it at school, from their parents, or online, experts agree that young people are going to seek out information about sex.

How accurate that information is, however — and how well it equips youth to safely handle real-world situations — depends on the source. And yet, so many adults remain fearful that providing young people with accurate sex education will encourage them to be more sexually active.

This is a myth that has been disproved time and time again, yet it continues to prevent so many of America’s kids and teens from accessing the information they deserve.

And so, they look to the internet.

“With young people increasingly turning to online sources for sexual information, it is more vital than ever that schools teach them about sexuality, pleasure, and media literacy,” Anna Richards, a sex educator and founder of ethical porn site FrolicMe, tells Healthnews.

Currently, less than half of teens in the United States receive formal instruction on birth control methods, STIs, and how to say “no” to sex before they’re ready to start having it, she explains.

Yet according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 30% of high school students reported being sexually active in 2023. A 2020 study meanwhile found that half of 11-to-13 year-olds have viewed pornography, and a study from 2021 found that 34.8% of 13-to-18-year-olds have received a sext.

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports broad access to comprehensive sex education, advocating for all children and adolescents to have access to age-appropriate education that allows them to develop a safe and positive view of sexuality, and make informed choices about their sexual health.

“Comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education is a human right,” says Leigh Anne McKingsley, an expert in sex education for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) for The Arc, an organization that works to protect and promote the rights of this group. “It equips everyone with vital tools of self-determination over their bodies and relationships.”

Porn isn’t education

As a result of inadequate formal sex ed, many teens and young adults turn to online pornography as their main source of information about sex.

This is a problem, Richards says, because the majority of free online porn is explicit, gratuitous, and extreme — yet it’s this content that is informing the next generation’s view of sex. Typically, these videos favor straight, male-centered perspectives, with little or no focus on female pleasure or realistic depictions of sex.

Just 2% of mainstream porn scenes depict condom use, one study found, while another found that just 18% show female orgasms.

And as more and more teens have turned to porn for sex ed in recent years, some disturbing trends regarding the sexual habits of young people have emerged. There has been a rise in “rough sex” among college students in the U.S., with more and more reports of choking occurring during sexual encounters between young people — often without the consent of both parties.

“This can happen due to an over-reliance on mainstream porn for sex education and a lack of porn literacy taught in schools,” Richards says. “People assume that the sex they are seeing in porn is real life, and it isn’t. What they’re seeing in these videos excludes the important conversations that happen before the filming begins — conversations about consent, boundaries, and safer sex.”

Given the sexual assault epidemic that persists on college campuses, Richards says learning about consent and the ways in which pornographic depictions of sex aren’t —and shouldn’t be — realistic before adolescents go off to college is vital.

Condom on a banana
Image by domnitsky via Shutterstock

Pleasure matters

While much of existing sex ed teaches that sex is strictly about reproduction, many people have sex for the sole purpose of experiencing intimacy and pleasure, and Richards says a lack of proper education sets young people up to know little about their own pleasure and the pleasure of their partner.

Because formal sex ed usually focuses on reproduction alone, Richards says, students typically learn about the uterus and vagina but not the clitoris.

[This] essentially erases women’s sexuality and sets them up for sex lives where they don’t know how to advocate for their own pleasure.

Richards

Even with increasing access to sexual material online, one study found that about half of young men couldn’t identify the clitoris on a diagram.

Ample research has shown that about three-quarters of women need clitoral stimulation to orgasm, so Richards says we do adolescents a great disservice by not teaching them about the clitoris.

Plus, if you don’t learn about pleasure, it can make it very hard to know when something isn’t pleasurable.

“Instead, youth should learn that sex can and should be enjoyable — and learn how to make it enjoyable for themselves and their partner, as well as how to say ‘no’ if they are not interested or are not enjoying themselves,” she says.

LGBTQ+ exclusion

When sex education focuses on heterosexual reproduction, many members of the LGBTQ+ community are also excluded.

Queer, trans, and non-binary youth may be more likely to struggle with their identity development, mental health, and overall physical well being without comprehensive sex ed that includes their identities and experiences, according to Cass Dallas, LICSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in LGBTQ+ health and mental health.

This is also true if they only learn of queer identities as a problem, risk, or something that makes life harder for them and those around them, Dallas says. This can increase feelings of perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness — two mental states that can arise when the fundamental need for connection goes unmet, and when an individual believes the world would be better off without them, respectively.

According to the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide in Adolescence, perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness are driving factors for increased suicidal thoughts. But Dallas says it’s important to distinguish that it is not the queer identities themselves that increase suicidal thoughts but rather the ways in which these identities are treated and discussed in our society.

When people with diverse sexual and gender identities don’t see examples of ways to live in the world as their authentic selves, this can be the tragic result.

“When students learn about sex, sexuality, and gender from a comprehensive sex education perspective, they are able to see who they are reflected in what they learn,” Dallas says. “This keeps them safer, as they learn how to take care of their bodies in a more complete way across a wider spectrum of possible sexual behavior.”

Teacher holding pride flag in front of class
Image by BearFotos via Shutterstock

Inclusive sex education also helps all students to see that their differences are worthy of different care and attention. When students learn comprehensive sex education that includes the spectrum of gender identities and sexualities, Dallas says they are able to see paths forward for being fully alive and well in the world as their authentic selves.

Comprehensive, inclusive sex education is one of many tools that can help to build a more affirming world for queer identities, they say, as it allows people to not only see that living and thriving well as queer adults is possible but also learn how to do so safely and healthily.

“It’s important to talk about trans joy, gender euphoria, and the positive outcomes of transitioning, not just the difficulties and dysphoria of being trans or nonbinary in the world,” Dallas says. “It’s important for students to see the ways that people who have intersectional and shared identities with them become healthy, thriving adults with loving, connected relationships.”

People with disabilities need sex ed, too

In addition to members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with IDD are also typically excluded from sex ed curriculums.

Our society has long perpetuated the harmful myth that people with IDD are asexual beings, which couldn't be further from the truth. Far too often, people with IDD are kept in the dark about one of the most fundamental human experiences — sexuality and relationships.

McKingsley

The alarming lack of comprehensive sex education among people with IDD has devastating consequences, she says: up to 84% are excluded from formal education about their bodies, sexuality, and healthy relationships, research has found. She explains that this deprivation of knowledge strips them of the power to understand consent, the power to forge safe intimate connections, and, tragically, the power to protect themselves from abuse.

There's also no national legislation ensuring people with IDD have access to these much-needed resources.

As a result, people with IDD face staggering rates of sexual violence and are seven times more likely to be assaulted than those without disabilities.

“Without education on what constitutes a healthy versus abusive relationship, too many victims are unaware they're being exploited or afraid to report crimes against them,” McKingsley says. “Ignorance breeds vulnerability.”

Sex ed empowers youth

Abstinence-only sex education does not lead to decreased rates of teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, Richards says. Instead, many teens are having sex despite their schools’ abstinence-only approach — they simply aren’t armed with the information necessary to avoid pregnancy and STIs, let alone to have connective, pleasurable, and fulfilling sex.

“Simply teaching people that sex is bad leads them to accept bad sex,” she says.

The way to help people have safer, more mutually respectful sex is not to deprive them of information altogether, therefore, but instead to give them information and teach them how to use it responsibly.

“Sex education is about much more than sex — it's about autonomy, safety, and understanding our own bodies,” McKingsley says. “Without knowledge, there can be no power — we must do better.”

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