From the first time your young child asks you innocently where babies come from, to fielding questions about contraception and STIs from teens, parents are faced with the very real need to provide their children with the facts of life. But how much of this information should be coming from their teachers and what’s the state of sex education in schools?
Although it might seem obvious that human sexuality and anatomy should be covered by most school health and science programs, actually only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in public schools. Nine states have absolutely no provision for sex education at all, including Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Texas, and Virginia.
Even when sex education is compulsory, the quality and content of the program varies widely from state to state and can encompass everything from comprehensive sex ed covering reproduction, puberty, contraception, and consent to simply pushing the «just say no» message.
Some states, including Florida and Alabama, have programs which stress abstinence first, which many experts believe is ineffective and even potentially harmful.
Erica Smith, M.Ed. Sexuality Educator and Consultant, from Philadelphia says «Keeping information about sex from young people teaches them that their bodies and sex are shameful. Giving them accurate and age-appropriate information better prepares them for a lifetime of mutually pleasurable and safe relationships.»
Research also shows that abstinence-only programs do not work at preventing young people from experimenting sexually and can lead to unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections and diseases.
A 2006 report by the Guttmacher Institute found that the states with the highest rates of teen moms aged 15-19 were also those states where abstinence-only programs were encouraged and where comprehensive sex education including information on contraception was not part of the school curriculum.
«Young people are going to learn about sex somehow. It’s unavoidable. Rather than have them learn from the media or their uninformed peers, a quality sexuality education curriculum can prepare them for real life,» says Smith.
Even if abstinence-only education isn’t stressed in the official state curriculum, it can still make its way into lessons, like in Nevada and North Dakota where the school boards receive state funding for abstinence before marriage sex education.
Utah goes even further with a law that prohibits the following topics from being taught at all: intercourse, homosexuality, contraception methods, and the advocacy of sex outside of marriage.
Comprehensive sex ed programs have the support of parents with Planned Parenthood reporting that 93-96% of parents want their kids to learn about sex in either middle or high school. The importance of sex education, therefore, cannot be overstated as a necessary and requested part of a complete and balanced school curriculum.
If you live in one of the 24 states that require schools to teach sex education your child’s experience could include the following programs: