We need to talk about sex education in America. I will not do the topic justice in one post. I would encourage everybody to check out the work by the Guttmacher Institute for more academic work on the subject.
In most American high schools and junior high’s, students receive some level of sex education. Like all curriculums across the country, sex ed is highly debated, content is decided by committee, and it is more a political decision then a content decision. In fact, only 26 of 50 states require that information be medically accurate. Fourteen states still require an “abstinence only” approach despite the fact that numerous studies have shown that this type of sex ed does not reduce sexual activity and states with abstinence only requirements have the highest teen pregnancy and STI rates.
It is past time we have a discussion about what the purpose for sex education is and what the content should be. The two things, purpose and content, should be connected (I know, I am getting wild ideas about teaching). We should also be looking at what other countries are doing that is effective.
For me, ideally, we would move from a medical/how-to approach with sex ed, to a relationship/respect/safety model. Yes, kids need to know some of the basics about where babies come from. However, we also need to talk about things like safety, controlling your body, and respect of yourself and others. This could all be incorporated into K12 sex ed.
K12??? Yes, K-12. There is nothing wrong with talking about sex in some form with kindergartners. Little kids kiss each other, pull each other’s hair, and other things that are not actually sexual for them, but it opens a place to start a conversation. Additionally, since child molestation is at epidemic rates in the United States, we need to talk to kids about body safety and awareness. It is actually effective for public health and reducing teen pregnancy to chat about sex early.
In the Netherlands, kids start sex ed in kindergarten. In the United States, it starts in sixth grade. In the Netherlands, birth rates for teens 15-19 is 6/1,000. In the United States, it’s 30/1,000. Concerned about kids getting pregnant and want to stop abortions? Start talking about sex early and often.
I am not advocating that you teach six year olds how to have sex. However, they should know the proper names for body parts, they should know that they touch those parts in private and no, say, in the lunchroom. They should also know that there are people who may want to inappropriate touch those parts and that it is always okay to say something if that happens.
We do need to keep some of the clinical aspects of sex ed. Students should know the internal structures, they should know that a period is a natural process, they should know that HIV is a virus and how to prevent it. I also think that the information needs to be medically accurate. The “Have sex before marriage and you will die!” message of my teen years is not necessarily effective. Being realistic about risks of pregnancy and STIs is helpful. Being honest about what protection a condom does and does not offer is also important. And all teens should now be directed to CondomFinder.org. If you are not familiar with this app, you download CondomFinder, put in a zip code, and every place that gives away free condoms and lube pop up.
Beyond the clinical, we need to talk to kids about the real role sex plays in people’s lives. Yes, it is for procreation. But that is not its exclusive function. Many people use it for recreation, as a way to connect and communicate, as stress relief, and some use it to manipulate people. We need to be able to honestly discuss the way sex works in people’s lives. To claim it is only for procreation leads to confusion when teens start having sex for other reasons.
There are a lot of resources out there for talking to kids about sex. There is actually an entire sex-positive parenting movement. I am in the process of creating a resource page for this site which will be posted shortly.