In the United States, sexual health curriculum means different things depending on where you live. Even regionally, sexual health curriculum can vary depending on the city, school district, or school itself. Unfortunately, the main thing that most sexual health curricula across the country have in common is a lack of inclusion and comprehensiveness in the material. It's also one of many reasons why parents should care about sexual health curriculum in schools, and regardless of how old their child is.
Millions of young people are being taught potentially harmful lessons, while some aren’t being taught anything beneficial at all, as a result of exclusive and incomplete curriculums. Health equity — the idea that every person should have access to the resources necessary for their wellbeing — can change that, though, and help parents feel confident in a school’s ability to offer their children inclusive, comprehensive sex education. The health and safety of our global community depends on it, and if us parents want to raise our children in healthy, safe environments, then as parents we depend on it, too.
Gina Tonello, a New York parent, comprehensive sexual education advocate, and activist, tells me that "parents should care about the type of sex education their kids are being taught because depending on the lesson, it has the power to hurt their children terribly, or drastically change their lives for the better."
"It's arguably one of the most powerful and potentially life-altering classes a child can take," she says.
While my child is several years away from taking any sort of sexual education class, I know from my own experiences that sexual education classes have a huge impact on the lives of young people. When children are only exposed to non-inclusive, heteronormative, abstinence-based sexual education courses, they miss out on important lessons. Further, statistics show that those types of sexual education are ineffective.
Teens living in states that offer abstinence-only education are actually more likely to become pregnant, according to a 2011 study published in PLoS One. The same study found that the more abstinence-only education is emphasized, the higher the average teen pregnancy and birth rate.
With hundreds of millions of dollars being pumped into ineffective, exclusive sexual education programs that focus on abstinence — a type of "education" that, according to a 2018 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, excludes information about contraception and condoms and how they can be used to prevent pregnancy and STIs — instead of a holistic approach to health, kids are missing out on information that could help protect them. In 2017, there were a reported 2.3 million cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — a record high.
In addition to those alarming facts, queer, trans, and gender non-conforming kids are often left out of sexual education curriculum, which can leave them feeling silenced or alone and the lack of honest information about sexual health can keep kids from knowing how to protect themselves. We have a long way to go since, according to the Guttmacher Institute, only 12 states require discussion of sexual orientation, 13 states require that the instruction be medically accurate, only 25 states and the District of Columbia require that sex education include information about skills for avoiding coerced sex, and only 20 states require information on condoms or contraception.
It’s time that we changed the narratives surrounding sexual health education, because the core components of age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education involve instilling values like communication and respect.
"Statistics also show that kids who are taught a medically accurate more comprehensive sex education have fewer partners, wait longer to have intercourse, have less STIs and less pregnancies," Tonello tells me, going on to explain that those are the statistics we can measure. "What can't be counted are the numbers of kids that hear abstinence only lessons that then feel shame and depression because either they have experienced sexual abuse or had chosen to have sex already or had an abortion already," she says.
Tonello also described her vision for inclusive, comprehensive sexual education. "In the early years, that includes safe touching, communication, proper names for body parts, bullying, different family structures, etc.," she says. "In early adolescence, it includes physical and emotional changes involved with puberty, defining harassment and teaching about abuse, defining sexual orientation and demonstrating dignity and respect." Tonello says that in middle school children should learn about healthy relationship discussions, consent, intercourse, abstinence, contraception, and STIs.
"In high school it includes contraception and condom demonstrations and decision making, brain development and how it impacts their lives, reviewing differences between biological sex, sex orientation and gender, advocating for safe environments, reducing the risk for STIs, etc.," she says.
It’s time that we changed the narratives surrounding sexual health education, because the core components of age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education involve instilling values like communication and respect. They’re just applied to issues related to human development and different types of relationships.
Organizations like Peer Health Exchange (PHE), a nonprofit that trains college students to teach a skills-based health curriculum in under-resourced high schools in an effort to empower young people to make healthy decisions, seek to address these issues and more by bringing health equity initiatives to under-served schools.
Tashiana Diaz, Associate Program Director of Peer Health Exchange's New York team, urges parents to find out if their child’s school offers sexual health education. "A lot of schools don’t offer sex education until very late, usually in high school," she tells me. "And by that time the student will have already gone through many of the scenarios that comprehensive sex education curriculum is intended to help them navigate. Students should be prepared earlier."
Schools aren’t always safe places. This is just one of the ways that we can make sure we’re making our schools safer for young people.
When asked about the importance of health equity, Diaz says it's vital. "It really ensures that people of all backgrounds and sexual orientations and levels of education receive the same access to health resources," she says. "It makes our society. and us as people, better in general."
When it comes to sexual health curriculum, health equity initiatives play an important role, too. With wellbeing, holistic approaches to healing, and accessibility at the forefront of health equity work, sexual education curriculum created with health equity in mind results in inclusive and comprehensive lessons. In some states, like New York, activists and organizations are working with parents towards having learning standards for comprehensive sex education.
Emily Kadar, Senior Manager of Political and Government Affairs for the National Institute for Reproductive Health and Sexuality Education Alliance of New York City (SEANYC) former chair, tells me that when most people think about "sex education," they immediately think of preventing pregnancy. "But there’s actually so much more than prevention of pregnancy and STIs," she says. "It's also about healthy relationships, it’s about bodily autonomy, and it’s about understanding just how to respect each other and that’s not something to just teach someone when they’re 14 like, 'OK, here’s the deal with consent...' We have to be teaching those lessons to kids from really early on."
Organizations like PHE, coalitions like SEANYC, and activists like Tonello, are working with parents, schools, and politicians to advocate for statewide learning standards for comprehensive sex education that would ensure that young people are offered better sexual education curricula. Luckily, this year in New York a bill was introduced that would create a statewide learning standard for comprehensive sex education that is K-12.
The bill, NY S04844, would require K-12 students to learn about the physical, mental, emotional, and social dimensions of sexuality in age- and developmentally-appropriate ways. This holistic and comprehensive approach to sexual education would address the countless problems wrong with curricula most of us are used to and our children are likely to be exposed to.
"Schools aren’t always safe places. This is just one of the ways that we can make sure we’re making our schools safer for young people," Tonello says. "This bill would create learning standards, but it would also call on the DOE to create model curricula and resources for districts to make sure that they are actually adhering to the standards and then to also have accountability."
One way that parents can involved in their own areas is to look for local organizations that work with activists, advocates, and politicians to address issues related to health equity in schools. Many organizations work collaboratively, sharing resources to make sure that advocacy work and policy initiatives are well-backed and fueled by collective momentum.
Even at home, parents can start by asking their children what their school has to offer when it comes to programs or classes that focus on things like consent, bodily autonomy, healthy decision-making, and sexual health. And if those children aren't old enough to understand these programs or be exposed to them, parents can start discussing bodily autonomy and consent in age-appropriate ways.
Thankfully, activists and organizations around the country are working hard to make sure that school-based sexual health curricula are created with a framework hat centers health equity. Parents can support their work in numerous ways, but the first step is to acknowledge that it’s important for us to care. No matter how old our children are.