Religious-right political groups that have spent decades dismantling abortion rights in much of the country have been gunning for sex education for just as long. Their dangerous and cynical efforts now appear under the guise of “parental rights” and “school transparency” on the floors of state legislatures and at school board meetings.
High quality, evidence-informed sex education is critically important, effective and supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. Limiting access to that instruction threatens the health and safety of young people, particularly those in states where access to reproductive health care is scarce in post-Roe v. Wade America.
Sadly, sex education is on shaky ground in many parts of the United States. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which went into effect this month and denies students in younger grades the opportunity to learn about gender identity and sexual orientation, was just one of many recent state bills seeking to restrict access to comprehensive sex education. While groups pushing these laws argue that such instruction puts children at risk of sexual exploitation, our research has found that comprehensive, medically accurate sex ed in fact protects them.
Despite the lies and distortion meant to scare parents away, adults across the political spectrum have said they support sex education for their children. And for good reason: States or counties that support teaching about both contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted infections have lower rates of S.T.I.s and adolescent pregnancies; states that rely on abstinence-only approaches, now rebranded as “sexual risk avoidance,” have higher teenage pregnancy rates.
In a systematic review of 30 years of peer-reviewed research that explored sex education outcomes beyond pregnancy and S.T.I. prevention, we found that high-quality sex education decreases intimate-partner violence, as well as homophobic bullying and harassment. It promotes healthy relationships and helps prevent child sex abuse by increasing skills to identify and report such offenses.
Sex education improves skills like empathy, communication, managing feelings and ability to establish and maintain positive relationships, as well as increases a sense of self-control and safety. It also strengthens media literacy, which can help young people find reliable information about sexual and reproductive health and rights while being able to detect false or misleading information.
The challenge is that only 11 states mandate sex education that is medically accurate, while others expressly stipulate that, if sex education is taught, coverage of abortion is prohibited or can only be portrayed negatively. States that don’t require medical accuracy in sex ed often allow schools to use programs with false, misleading or distorted information. Some only discuss contraception in terms of failure rates and withhold lifesaving information about the use of condoms to prevent S.T.I.s and pregnancy.
Others assert long disproved claims, such as that having a legal abortion puts someone at greater risk for infertility and suicide. They also promote stigmatizing moral and religious beliefs — using terms like “virginity” and “chastity” in an effort to push abstinence — and teach that sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.
The good news is that even in states that restrict sex education, concepts of fairness, dignity and respect — as well as consent and bodily integrity (that we each have the right to say what we do with our own bodies) — are regularly taught in early grades without controversy. They are just not recognized as sex education. Indeed, some of the most effective sex education outcomes we found from elementary through high school were achieved not just in traditional health or sex education classrooms, but in English, social studies, physical education, music and art classes.
Even in states hostile to abortion, it is possible to promote school-based instruction that meets the National Sex Education Standards, which are research-based guidelines Dr. Goldfarb initially helped develop for the core content and skills needed for effective K-12 sex education. Federal legislation has been proposed that would support high-quality sex education and impede federal funding for abstinence-only programming. (Further, anyone can review in-depth profiles of the sex education environments in their own states, including up-to-date information on legislative and advocacy efforts to secure comprehensive sex education.)
Because sex education is often under local control, even in states with more progressive policies, instruction can fall short, especially on highly politicized topics like abortion. It is imperative to dispel the misinformation young people are exposed to about the dangers of abortion. Contrary to what many students are taught, someone is far more likely to die from giving birth than from a legal abortion. And we need to normalize the procedure for young people, since around one in four women and many trans and nonbinary people have an abortion in their lifetimes.
For many young people, especially those whose sex education is lacking, the internet becomes a primary source of sexual health information. While not a sufficient substitute for classroom-based learning, a growing number of sex educators and health care providers are turning to social media platforms like TikTok. Websites such as Amaze.org, PlannedParenthood.org, Scarleteen.com and Sexetc.org are filled with accessible, accurate and developmentally and age-appropriate information for young people.
In the post-Roe era, we must fight state by state, district by district, to fend off attacks on sex education based on falsehoods and fear. Community members must speak up for medically accurate sex education at the local level, where curriculum decisions are often driven by who shows up at public meetings and who sits on the school board.
Many of those who have worked to deny access to critical reproductive health care for millions of Americans are also determined to keep our young people ignorant, disempowered and at even greater risk. These efforts are dangerous and must be stopped. Without sex education, post-Roe America will be even bleaker when it comes to sexual health.
Eva Goldfarb and Lisa Lieberman are professors of public health at Montclair State University and authors of “Three Decades of Research: The Case for Comprehensive Sex Education.” Dr. Goldfarb helped develop the National Sex Education Standards, and Dr. Lieberman was a researcher on the effectiveness of the New York public schools’ condom availability program.
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