Sex Education in America’s Schools: Is It Working?

Offering accurate and consistent sex education in schools is essential. However, American students don't all get the same sex education experience, especially compared to other parts of the world.

Providing students with sex education resources can increase their overall health and help prevent unintended pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Let's take a deeper dive into the state of sex education in American schools.

How does the U.S teach sex education?

The United States doesn't have one method of educating its students. State policies can vary widely, and many of these policies are up to the discretion of school districts. This can understandably result in a mismatch of practices.

For the last several decades, much of the sex education in public schools has been abstinence-focused. But, these programs don't give information on birth control use except for failure rates. According to a study in Current Opinion in Obstetrics & Gynecology, they don't provide scientifically accurate information. Sex-ed isn't even a requirement in some states at all.

According to Planned Parenthood, the federal government has spent over two billion dollars on abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education programs. These programs have rebranded as sexual risk avoidance (SRA) programs. And research shows they don't work.

Despite that, the Trump administration cut over $200 million in federal funds for programs for teen pregnancy prevention. And according to the CDC, almost 46% of sexually active high school students didn't use a condom the last time they had sex.

How effective is sex education in America?

Half of all new cases of STIs reported annually are from those ages 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Less than 10% of high school students had been tested for HIV or STIs in the last year, according to a CDC survey in 2019.

According to a 2021 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, students are less likely to receive sex education topics than they were 25 years ago. The number of students being given information on birth control in 1995 was higher than in 2015 to 2019.

Besides many school programs failing to provide medically accurate sex education, these programs also often center around heterosexual relationships and exclude other identities.

Better sex education is needed

Sex education is supported by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine.

Data from the CDC School Health Profiles report students aged 15 through 19 experience significant decreases in being given sex education topics such as birth control methods and STI and HIV prevention. According to Planned Parenthood, sex education is the most successful when:

  • Taught early and often by trained professionals
  • Evidenced-based
  • Inclusive of LGBTQ+ students
  • Includes information and skill-building activities

"There's a very strong-but-small movement against sex and sexuality. That movement is very well-funded and has done a successful job of getting people to have doubts about sexual education and [believe] that if you provide sexuality education, young people are more likely to be sexually active. But that is inaccurate info," said Tamara Kreanin, director of the Population and Reproductive Health Program from the Packard Foundation and former executive director of Women and Population at the United Nations Foundation, in an article for Harvard Political Review.

What does better sex education look like?

Comprehensive sex education is about providing factual information on topics of sex and sexuality that begins early in childhood and continues throughout adolescence. Research has shown that comprehensive sex education that is culturally sensitive and inclusive can help students develop healthy relationships and reduce intimate partner violence.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends comprehensive sex education to be "medically accurate, evidence-based, and age-appropriate." It should include information on delaying sexual intercourse and information on normal reproduction, contraception, and barrier protection such as condoms to prevent STIs.

According to ACOG, comprehensive sex education should also teach forms of sexual expression, what is considered to be a healthy sexual relationship, gender identity, and consent.

The Netherlands' approach to sex education

Other areas of the world take a different approach to sex education in schools. For instance, according to the Centre for Global Reproductive Health, the Netherlands teaches sex education to children as young as four. Seven-year-olds learn the correct terms for body parts. By age 11, Dutch students have received education on reproduction and safer sex practices.

Dutch students also report more positive first sexual experiences compared to American students. Both American and Dutch teenagers typically have sex for the first time between ages 17 and 18. But while the American teen birth rate has decreased in recent years, they still give birth more often than Dutch teens. And Dutch teens have fewer abortions.

Conclusion

Research from other countries with more robust and comprehensive sex education programs shows that better sex education equates to more positive sexual experiences and fewer teen pregnancies. Overall, more needs to be done in American Public schools to give students access to better, more inclusive sex education.

Key takeaways:

Not all American states even have a sex education requirement.

Students are less likely to receive sex education topics than 25 years ago.

Comprehensive sex education can help students develop healthy relationships and reduce intimate partner violence.

Resources:

Current opinion in obstetrics & gynecology. Abstinence and abstinence-only education.

Planned Parenthood. Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs.

Journal of adolescent health. Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage: An Updated Review of U.S. Policies and Programs and Their Impact.

CDC. Sexual Risk Behaviors.

Journal of adolescent health. Adolescents' Receipt of Sex Education in a Nationally Representative Sample, 2011–2019.

CDC. 2020 Profiles Report.

Harvard Political Review. The Nuanced Push for American Sex Education.

Journal of adolescent health. Three Decades of Research: The Case for Comprehensive Sex Education.

ACOG. Comprehensive Sexuality Education.

Duke Global Health Institute. Sex Ed. Goes Global: The Netherlands.

Women's Health Issues. Beyond Abstinence and Risk: A New Paradigm for Adolescent Sexual Health.

Guttmacher. Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health in the United States.

CDC. About Teen Pregnancy.

Guttmacher. Abortion Worldwide 2017: Uneven Progress and Unequal Access.

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