Sex education is a human right

Jessica McLaren, Staff Writer

Trigger warning: sexual violence, sexual assault and rape

Sex education— for many, this phrase probably brings memories of snickering in the back of the classroom during some sort of inept condom demonstration. Or maybe, you think of the scene from “Mean Girls” where Coach Carr gives some pretty dumbfounded advice: “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!” Now, while this obviously isn’t the case, practicing unsafe sex certainly has consequences. However, because sex education curriculum requirements vary from state to state and even between school districts, the word “unsafe” seems to be dropped from this mantra. Instead, these programs encourage students to abstain from sexual behaviors entirely, preferably until marriage. The abstinence-only approach has survived as the norm in several states dating back to the implementation of sexual health education. Refusing to teach students about sex is not proper sex education. School systems, regardless of religious affiliation, have an obligation to their students to provide them with the sexual health information necessary to make informed, autonomous decisions regarding their bodies.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, a high-quality sexual health education (SHE) program should effectively inform students how to avoid unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, for all populations of students: including students that are LGBTQ+. The program should encourage students to take responsibility for not only their own health but how their actions impact the wellbeing of others. Ideally, the curriculum should focus on the student as a whole, incorporating material on critical thinking, decision making, mental health and healthy relationships. 

Unfortunately, this standard fails to reach many students, as the federal government does not regulate sexual education. Left in the hands of the states, the content covered is usually vague and politically charged. As of October, Guttmacher Institute reports that only 36 states in the U.S. mandate SHE. To make matters worse, only half of these states require that the curriculum be medically accurate (Texas is not one of them). At this point, bad sex education seems to be an American rite of passage. Some states intervene only after the teen pregnancy rate surpasses a set point. It is human nature to partake in behaviors that we know are risky, and teenagers are no exception. Interestingly enough, adolescents are actually more vulnerable to risky behaviors, as the part of the brain that allows us to rationalize does not finish developing until around age 25. Whereas adults use their prefrontal cortex to process and make decisions, children and adolescents use their amygdala, which plays a major role in emotional regulation. As a result, teenagers tend to act on their emotions, which are oftentimes flooded with hormones like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone; these hormones cause drastic changes in mood and arousal which, paired with risky behavioral patterns and a lack of suitable sex education, can have lifelong consequences. We cannot simply condemn sex and expect teens to comply without explaining how or why.

Abstinence-only SHE courses are not only unrealistic and outdated but incredibly damaging to the sexual health and wellbeing of all ages. Still, the federal government has funded such programs since 1982, which operate on the basis that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.” Of the 39 states that require schools to discuss abstinence, 28 require that it be stressed as a primary means of contraception. A total of 19 states emphasize abstinence specifically until marriage. Despite efforts to ensure education remains unbiased, only three states — California, ­Colorado and Louisiana — prohibit discussion of religion during sex education. What may stand out the most, however, is that only 11 states require that consent be covered in the program. These numbers are appalling and unacceptable. Access to medically accurate, unbiased information regarding one’s body and sexual health is a human right; a lack of proper sex education is an active sacrifice of the health, success and wellbeing of our youth and future generations. 

Comprehensive SHE is the most effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy and STI incidence in teens and even adults. A common misconception surrounding sex education is that it may pressure or even teach students how to have sex. This is blatantly false. In fact, the CDC explains that students who receive a high-quality sex education become sexually active later in life and will have fewer sexual partners than their peers. In the 21st century, we have the entire world of information available at our fingertips and take in vast amounts of media every day. Pop culture has a tendency to glamorize sex and romantisizes teen pregnancy, abusive relationships, sexual violence and predatory behavior. Whereas past generations could more easily distinguish real life from the smokescreens of Hollywood, these lines become very blurry with the implementation of social media, which integrates our networking and news with our entertainment. Access to unbiased sex education provides students with the tools they need to critically think about the media they are exposed to.

Moreover, rethinking how we teach sex education could be the answer to stopping sexual violence and assault at the root. Abstinence-only sex education reinforces the shame that surrounds sex and consent, building upon the stigma that perpetuates rape culture. These programs rely on ridiculous, objectifying metaphors, such as a piece of chewed-up gum or a used toothbrush, to discourage sexual activity. The abstinence-only approach promotes hegemonic masculinity, the respective valuing and devaluing of masculine and feminine attributes; it places the responsibility of both genders to ‘remain pure’ on female students and absolves their male peers of fault. Respect and boundaries are topics that should be introduced to children as early as kindergarten, as they lay the framework for understanding the complex concept of consent later on. Although sexual violence prevention is typically aimed at college campuses, the reality is that sexual violence affects people of all ages. Sex education, as long as it is age-appropriate, is the perfect vessel for explaining such concepts to children early on.

All factors considered, the transition into adulthood is confusing enough as it is. Shielding our youth from the real world does not protect them from its evils: it simply creates a blind spot. By dismissing student concerns about sexual health and wellness, including but not limited to contraception, STIs, pregnancy and consent, we set them up for failure. Sex education programs continue to fail to prepare the adolescents of the next generation time and time again, and if extensive changes to the mandated curriculums are not made, this could leave future populations in grave danger.