By Morgan Descoteau, Program Intern, with contributions from Beth Wynkoop, Prevention and Education Policy Advocate
As of 2019, only twenty-four states require that sex education be taught, only ten of those states require that this education be medically accurate, and only nine states require that consent is included in sex education (Fay, 2019). Health and sex education is an important and valuable subject taught in school because it impacts every student. Inadequate sex education can lead to a myriad of physical, emotional, and mental consequences that could affect an individual for a lifetime. For example, states that have abstinence-only education have higher pregnancy and STI rates than states with more comprehensive sex education (Stanger-Hall & Hall, 2011). A lack of comprehensive sex education is also directly linked to higher rates of sexual violence. One study found that when students received comprehensive sexual education before entering college, they were significantly less likely to be sexually assaulted while in college (Santelli et al., 2018) In September, MCASA held a session featuring one of the authors of Sexual Citizens, Jennifer S. Hirsch, who cited comprehensive, sex-positive health education as one of the most fundamental prevention interventions for young adults.
Fortunately, Maryland can be counted among the twenty-four states that require that sex education be taught. With the support of MCASA, Maryland passed Erin’s law in 2016, which requires that public schools implement a prevention-oriented sexual abuse program that teaches children how to recognize abuse and how to access resources and reporting if they have experienced sexual violence. While there are guidelines in place to support school districts in implementing Erin’s Law, most implementation details are left to the school districts to allow flexibility and customization for their unique student body. In the age of COVID-19 and distance learning, it is particularly important to incorporate best practices of comprehensive sex education into school curriculum.
According to an article written by Planned Parenthood (2018), sex-positive education focuses on how to have safe sex and healthy relationships. The curriculum is based on age-appropriate lessons. An example of sex-positive education for younger students is a lesson identifying activities that make students feel good like playing with their friends or helping their parents with chores. By doing this, children practice normalizing talking about what makes them feel good. While many parents may be afraid that introducing sex-positive education in schools will encourage sexual activity, the opposite is true. When schools acknowledge that sexuality is a part of being human, students have healthier relationships.
Another necessary area of sex-positive education, where many schools fall short, is LGBTQ education. Schooling in general fails to teach about LGBTQ people and experiences, but it is most apparent in health education (Humans Right Campaign). In 2015, a survey showed that only 12% of students received education on LGBTQ topics in their sex education classes (Jones & Cox, 2015). Combining inadequate education on LGBTQ experiences with the lack of trusted adults for children and teens to talk to about LGBTQ sexual health, they turn to the internet or peers where they have a higher chance of getting inaccurate and inappropriate information. This could put these students at greater risk of experiencing sexual violence or more difficulty seeking support, which is particularly concerning since research shows that LGBTQ individuals are disproportionately likely to experience sexual violence (Walters, Chen, & Breiding, 2011). Inclusive sex education helps students understand sexual orientation and gender identity at an age-appropriate level. Comprehensive sex education should have positive examples of LGBTQ individuals, relationships, and families embedded in curriculum and work to dismiss common myths and stereotypes of the LGBTQ community (Human Rights Campaign).
Overall, comprehensive, LGBTQ-inclusive sex education not only benefits LGBTQ students by giving them a safe space to learn and ask questions, but all students by exposing them to different types of people and relationships. Comprehensive sex education is an often overlooked, but powerful form of sexual assault prevention, and one of our greatest opportunities to create a generation of informed, empowered youth dedicated to violence-free communities.
The Education Team. (2018). That 8-Letter Word: Including Pleasure in Sex Education. Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-st-louis-region-southwest-missouri/blog/that-8-letter-word-including-pleasure-in-sex-education.
Fay, L. (2019, April 1). Just 24 States Mandate Sex Education for K-12 Students, and Only 9 Require Any Discussion of Consent. See How Your State Stacks Up. https://www.the74million.org/article/just-24-states-mandate-sex-education-for-k-12-students-and-only-9-require-any-discussion-of-consent-see-how-your-state-stacks-up/.
Jones, R. P., & Cox, D. (2015). How Race and Religion Shape Millennial Attitude on Sexuality and Reproductive Health . https://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/PRRI-Millennials-Web-FINAL.pdf.
LGBTQ Youth Need Inclusive Sex Education. HRC. https://www.hrc.org/resources/a-call-to-action-lgbtq-youth-need-inclusive-sex-education.
Santelli, J. S., Grilo, S. A., Choo, T. H., Diaz, G., Walsh, K., Wall, M., ... & Mellins, C. A. (2018). Does sex education before college protect students from sexual assault in college?. PloS one, 13(11), e0205951.
Sedgh, G., Finer, L. B., Bankole, A., Eilers, M. A., & Singh, S. (2015). Adolescent pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates across countries: levels and recent trends. The
Journal of Adolescent Health : Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 56(2), 223–230. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2014.09.007
Stanger-Hall, K. F., & Hall, D. W. (2011). Abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates: why we need comprehensive sex education in the U.S. PloS one, 6(10),
Walters, M., Chen, J., & Breiding, M. (2011). National Intimate Partner And Sexual Violence Survey 2010: findings on victimization by sexual orientation.
What is Erin's Law? Erin's Law . (2019). http://www.erinslaw.org/erins-law/.