In Indiana, where I live, opt-in laws mean high school students learn little – if anything – in school about sex. Yet adults confront sex-related issues all the time.
Consider the debate over a recent abortion law passed in Texas and upheld by the Supreme Court; a Netflix series about sexual identity; a report that sexual assaults at Big Ten Universities increased in September. These topics require knowledge about pregnancy, gender, and consent. If teenagers are limited to instruction only about the danger of AIDS and the benefits of monogamy, they won’t be prepared for the broad range of sex-related situations and decisions they will face for the rest of their lives – not just in their most intimate relationships, but in their workplaces and communities. Lawmakers, educators, and parents can support the next generation by advocating for and improving an inclusive approach to sexual education.
Overall, comprehensive sex ed encourages individuals to explore their sexual health, and it provides space to ask questions and share ideas. While critics have claimed that comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) promotes premarital sex and promiscuity, the truth is that CSE do encourage abstinence as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. They also include discussions about condoms or other forms of birth control in class.
In addition, CSE guidelines, published by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, communicate that sexuality is a natural, normal, healthy part of life. It addresses topics such as human development, relationships, interpersonal skills, sexual expression, sexual health, and society and culture. And it discusses the options a woman faced with an unintended pregnancy has: carrying the pregnancy to term and raising the baby, carrying the pregnancy to term and placing the baby for adoption, or ending the pregnancy with an abortion.
This broad discussion invites a range of students into the conversation, including students who are pregnant, sexually active, gay, transgender or have an STD or STI. Moreover, approximately 90% of parents support having comprehensive education offered in public schools. Many parents report feeling uncomfortable discussing deeper matters of sexual health with their children, and teens report being more comfortable seeking sensitive information from social media and television.
Unfortunately, teachers may be willing but ill-equipped to talk about sexual health with students. Recently, I conducted a research study that included face-to-face interviews with 11 educators among three school districts. Every educator identified the need for having honest conversations with students that reflected their lives; however, teacher training and professional development opportunities for comprehensive sex-ed programs are not promoted, prioritized, or provided to educators. Consequently, teachers are often unable to stay current with emerging trends and communicate most effectively with students.
To dramatically improve sex education in Indiana and nationwide, teachers should be trained and informed about current facts, statistics, and age-appropriate terminology. Next, sex ed programs should include the concepts of consent, date rape, abusive relationships, managing a budget, gender orientation and identity, and sexual harassment. These issues arise in schools, the workplace, and on college campuses, regularly; it is essential that students can detect and identify them upon graduating from high school.
Finally, lawmakers must recognize that teachers are central participants in sensitive discussions and often serve as liaisons between schools and parents. As such, lawmakers can build lines of communication by proactively including administrators and educators in policy discussions.
In 2017, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed less than half of high schools in the United States were achieving the goal of teaching 19 sexual health education topics to adolescents. This report confirmed that states are falling short of teaching critical health information to teens.
Sexual health is a lifelong lesson, and we can use comprehensive sex education to include, inspire, and support the next generation. At the same time, State and district policies must support educators so they can better serve young people at a critical stage of physical, mental, and emotional development.
About the Author:
Dr. Katie Greenan is an assistant professor of Communications at the University of Indianapolis. She is a fellow with The OpEd Project.