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Sex Education in the United States

By: Natalie Cappelli

Sex Education is:


"the process of acquiring information and forming attitudes and beliefs about sex, sexual
identity, relationships and intimacy. Sex education is also about developing young people's
skills so that they make informed choices about their behavior, and feel confident and
competent about acting on these choices."1

The United States teen pregnancy rate is substantially higher than in any other western nation.2
What can be done in order to lower these numbers? The answer is simple: sex education. Today,
federal funding is allocated to abstinence-only education, which is why schools implement such
programs.3 The purpose of sexual education is to teach adolescents about how to have safe and
healthy sex lives, but abstinence only teaches them not to have sex. If abstinence-only education
is not the answer, what is? Comprehensive forms of sex education. They present more honest
and effective facts that have helped teens remain healthy and avoid negative sexual health
outcomes.4 The debate over the benefit of abstinence-only versus comprehensive sex education
programs continuously proves that a comprehensive curriculum is more beneficial. However,
State College Area School District, the regions largest high school, continues to teach
abstinence-only as the core of their sex education program.5 As a result, the time has come to
understand the history, comprehend the need for courses, and recognize the advantages and
disadvantages of the opposing programs. Therefore, sex education will ultimately transition to a
comprehensive curriculum in the State College area so that adolescents receive the information
necessary to lead healthy lives.

The History of Sex Education


Support for sexuality education began in the 1800s, as the public wanted to promote regulation
of sexuality and emphasize health care prevention.6 In 1892, the National Education
Association first discussed passing a resolution that called for moral education in the schools.
However, it wasnt until 1913 until Chicago became the first major city to implement sex
education for high schools. The program did not last long, as the Catholic Church launched a
campaign against the initiative. By 1918, Americans began to view sex education as a public
health issue, and from that point, sex education exploded over the next four decades.7

Discussion on a national level over what to teach children about sex in the school atmosphere has
existed since the National Education Association recommended that teachers be trained to
provide education about sexuality.8 Over the past 30 years, there has been a constant battle
between conservatives and health advocates over the advantages and format of sexuality
education. However, sex education in public schools proliferated, mainly because of new
emerging evidence that such programs did not promote sex, but did help delay sexual activity
and reduce teen pregnancy rates.9 At the time, sex education was simply a biology lesson, and
students were simply learning the facts of life. Today, most states have policies in conjunction
with broader sex education, but things have changed.
The Facts
Trends

The 24 states, shaded in blue, as well


as the District of Columbia mandate
sex education today.10 However, each
state has a different curriculum that is
followed, meaning that each program
covers different material from state to
state, whether that be an abstinence-
only education or a comprehensive
sex education. Between 1992 and
2010, state decreases in teen
pregnancy ranged from 25% in West
Virginia to 62% in California, and the
map shows that both states mandate
some form of sexuality education.11
However, substantial disparities in
teen pregnancy rates are apparent
across the United States. The states in
which the red stars appear on have
consistently been found to have the
highest rates of teen pregnancy in the
nation, while states such as Maine,
Massachusetts, Minnesota, New
Hampshire and Vermont, all outlined
in blue, have reported some of the
lowest frequencies of teen pregnancy.12

Explaining the Declines

What is behind the downward trend in teen pregnancy? The answer is quite simple: On one
hand, it is easy to say that teens are simply having fewer sexual encounters in the first place or
more teens are actually sexually aware and using contraceptives in a more effective manner.
Researchers have continuously analyzed the role of both sides over the last decades, and they
have concluded that the declines can be attributed to improvements in teens contraceptive use.13

The recent trends are clear enough, but understanding what drives such behavior is more of a
challenge. The positive trends are often credited to education programs, due to the fact that such
programs have been shown to delay sexual debut, reduce the frequency of sex and number of
partners, increase condom or contraceptive use, or reduce sexual risk-taking. However, it is clear
that adolescents need sex education that teaches them the skills necessary to delay sexual
initiation, while also preparing them with the information and skills needed to protect themselves
and their partners when they do become sexually active.14
Yet, across the nation, sex education policy is far from a settled issue.

Why is Sex Education Needed?

The future of every adolescent revolves


around their health, and their health is
shadowed by the risk of sexually
transmitted diseases, as well as by the
risk of unintended pregnancies.
Everyone is guilty of believing that it
wont happen to me, but the facts
show that young people ages 15-24
contract almost half of the nations
STDs annually.15 Additionally, there is
now a greater gap between the age in
which females first have sex and when
they get married and have children, yet
the age in which females first have sex
has changed little over time.
Additionally, messages in the media
about sex also influence a teens life
because outlets, such as the internet,
have become an important source for
health information.16 Therefore, why
arent teens being educated?

Sex Education Programs


Formal sexual health education is instruction that takes place in a school or other community
setting, that serves as a central source of information for adolescents. Young adults may receive
information about sexual health topics from a range of sources beyond formal instruction, with
more than half of 7th to 12th grade students admitting that they have looked up health information
on line in order to learn more about topics affecting themselves.17 Debates over what kind of
information teens should receive in schools have played out in state governments as well.
Currently, sexuality education programs can be divided into two distinct categories: abstinence-
only education and comprehensive sex education.

Abstinence-Only Education
Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs teach abstinence as the only morally correct option of
sexual expression for teenagers. The curriculum limits topics to the negative consequences of
pre-marital sexual activity, and omits controversial issues such as abortion, while using fear
tactics to promote abstinence.18 These programs do not address matters such as sexual health,
sexual orientation, or sexual protection.
Advantages

Abstinence from sex is the only form of pregnancy prevention that is 100% effective.
Additionally, teens who abstain from sexual activity avoid the risk of contracting a STD, and are
less likely to experience physical or emotional abuse. Getting involved in sexual activities
increases vulnerability, and studies have connected low self-esteem and early sexual activity.
Abstinence also is free of charge and there are no side effects of practicing such.19

Disadvantages

Researchers stress that programs that seek


to stop adolescents from having sex
before marriage are out of touch with the
lives of young people. Ninety-five
percent of Americans have sex before
marriage, yet abstinence-only programs
ignore the needs of sexually active
adolescents. As a result, teens may be at
heightened risk for unintended pregnancy
and STDs. Furthermore, scientific
research indicates that strategies that
solely promote abstinence outside of
marriage while withholding information
about contraceptives do not stop or even
delay sex. Additionally, these programs
require educators to disregard basic
ethical standards by providing incomplete
and potentially harmful information to
students.20

What is the other option?

Comprehensive Sex Education


Comprehensive sexuality education programs, often known as abstinence-plus programs,
encourage abstinence until marriage as the most effective protection from unplanned pregnancies
and sexually transmitted diseases. However, these programs recognize the realities of sexuality
and behavior among teenagers. They often address issues relating to contraception and safe sex,
peer pressure, and other issues relating to sexuality.21 Additionally, such programs include age-
appropriate, medically accurate information on a broad set of topics related to sexuality including
human development, relationships, decision making, abstinence, contraception, and disease
prevention.22
Advantages

Strong evidence has shown that the effectiveness of a comprehensive sex education, proving that
these programs help youth delay onset of sexual activity, reduce the frequency of sexual activity,
reduce the number of sexual partners, and increase condom and contraception use. Most
importantly, the evidence shows that youth who receive comprehensive sex education are NOT
more likely to become sexually active or increase sexual activity. Additionally, comprehensive
sex education programs can change the behaviors that put young people at risk of pregnancy.23
Generally, population-based studies have found that reproductive health outcomes improve when
adolescents receive formal sex education that includes information about contraception and
abstinence. Leading medical professional organizations also support this approach to sex
education, stressing the need for medically, age-appropriate curricula.24

Disadvantages

There is currently no federal funding stream dedicated truly to promoting sex education. Critics
believe that all the detailed information learned in comprehensive sex education programs will
make teenagers more inclined to have premarital sex. Also, the imperfect prevention rates of the
contraception methods taught to students in these programs are often a point of reference in
which critics argue that once again abstinence is the only fool-proof choice. Additionally,
another criticism is that comprehensive sex education is neutral on values.25

What is the next step?

Today
The debate over the merits of abstinence-only versus comprehensive sex education has led many
states to enact specific content requirements. The curriculums vary state by state, but schools
today favor an abstinence-only basis more often, due to the fact that the federal government
began funding such programs as part of the 1996 welfare reform bill, but the programs are not
effective at delaying the initiation of sexual activity or teen pregnancy.26 However, in this debate
one aspect is undisputed: The average kid is immersed in sexual imagery.27 We are a generation
that faces a multitude of confusing messages, from watching teens hook up in television series
and movies to being told to just say no to sex. As a result, Americas kids, your children or
students, are caught in the middle.

How much to teach?

There is no federal law that requires public schools to teach sex education, let alone one that
specifies what should be taught, leaving that decision up to states individually, but more
specifically, school districts.28 The abstinence only message clearly portrays that it ignores
critical information for teens, so why does the federal government champion the abstinence-only
approach? In order to receive federal funding, the abstinence-only program must meet criteria,
yet for the students who have already received a botched sex education from the media, hearing
people mumble about the importance of waiting until marriage has done nothing to prevent them
from acting on the desires in their heads.29 As a result, if the schools are stressing unsuccessful
abstinence-only sex educations, how can students be expected to know the best method of safe
sex when it comes time? Neglecting to teach students about sex doesnt seem like a serious
offense, but it is important for educators to fill in the gaps of the talk when needed and to
ensure that young people are in better control on their sex lives to avoid preventable crises.

Policy

In President Barack Obamas 2017 budget proposal, he cut all funding for abstinence-only
programs in public schools. Obamas choice to cut off abstinence-only funding showed the
countrys recognition of the issue, and that it is time to act. This goes to show that schools should
stop turning a blind-eye to their students sexuality by deferring to abstinence as the only way to
think about sex. Therefore, as educators and lawmakers start to acknowledge the benefits of
teaching students about contraceptives, the rates of teen pregnancy and STD transmission will
drop.30

Where does State College Area School District stand on the issue?

State College
State College Area High School has
continued to rely on its abstinence-only sex
education program, despite the increase in
teen sexual activity and decrease of condom
use. According to district officials, the
curriculum is updated based on the latest
research, but it was found that there has not
been a comprehensive local review since the
federally-mandated one in 1986 when the
AIDS crisis first emerged.31 Twenty-two
years have passed since the last review by
State High, while the last update was made to
sex education guidelines offered by the
Pennsylvania Department of Education in
2002. The problem lays in the fact that a sum
total of fewer than sixty words of a nineteen-
page document were centered around sexual
education. However, review of the state
guidelines found two areas in which sex
education can be provided to students if the
school board approves such actions.
Local Control

The sex education guidelines mention abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases on two
occasions in the document, but the concepts that prepare adolescents to lead healthy futures
cannot be found, including:
Contraception
Sex
Intercourse
Pregnancy/abortion
School districts across Pennsylvania have plenty of room within the sex education guidelines to
teach teens more than abstinence and condom use solely providing protection from HIV
transmission. Other school districts in the eastern area of Pennsylvania have picked up an
entirely comprehensive approach to sex education. Granted, rural districts face different
challenges due to the sensitivity of the topic of instruction, although it is a fact that there is no
design to a sex-education program that will please everyone. Additionally, curriculum advisory
officials confirmed that teachers are trained to enforce abstinence as the number one message,
but, according to teens, telling them to abstain from sex is not effective.32

What is missing?

The primary reason schools incorporate abstinence-only sex education into their curriculums is
due to the federal funding that accompanies such programs. However, since funding for
abstinence-only curriculums is decreasing, the country is transitioning away from only providing
students with half of the story in terms of sex education. There are clear links between healthy
relationships and education, and national research continues to support these assertions.
Therefore, as funding is cut, abstinence-only programs will be phased out of school curriculums,
and comprehensive sex agendas will begin to appear more frequently.33 As a result, the students
in need of sex education that come before the state-wide transition should not have to receive
inaccurate information regarding their personal health. The implantation of comprehensive sex
education programs in State College Area High School is the first step in helping the teens of the
region ensure their current and future sexual health.

Its time to stop teaching ideals and start addressing the issue.34
- recent State High Graduate, Ranjeva

Summary

The idea that sex education should be mandatory for adolescents is undisputed. However, the high rate of
teen pregnancies in the United States proves that the current curriculums are not fulfilling their purpose--
teaching adolescents how exactly to have safe and healthy sex lives. Therefore, it is apparent that the
transition to more comprehensive sex programs is right around the corner. They will present honest and
effective facts that will help teens become more sexually aware in order to avoid negative health
outcomes in the State College Area School District.
Endnotes

1. DeWitt, Peter. "Should Sex Education Be Taught in Schools?" Education Week - Finding
Common Ground. N.p., 04 June 2015. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
2. "About Teen Pregnancy." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, 26 Apr. 2016. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
3. "The Looming Threat to Sex Education: A Resurgence of Federal Funding for
Abstinence-Only Programs?" Guttmacher Institute. N.p., 07 Apr. 2017. Web. 10 Apr.
2017.
4. Alford, Sue. "Sex Education Programs: Definitions & Point-by-Point
Comparison." Advocatesforyouth.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.
5. "Abstinence at core of State High sex ed." Abstinence at core of State High sex ed |
Voices of Central Pa. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
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2010. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.
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Apr. 2017.
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18. Alford, Sue. "Sex Education Programs: Definitions & Point-by-Point
Comparison." Advocatesforyouth.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.
19. Lowen, Linda. "What are Common Arguments For Abstinence?" ThoughtCo. N.p., 25
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20. "The Looming Threat to Sex Education: A Resurgence of Federal Funding for
Abstinence-Only Programs?" Guttmacher Institute. N.p., 07 Apr. 2017. Web. 10 Apr.
2017.
21. "Background on Sexuality Education." Religious Action Center. N.p., 03 Dec. 2015.
Web. 10 Apr. 2017.
22. "Support SIECUS!" SIECUS - Fact Sheet. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.
23. "Support SIECUS!" SIECUS - Fact Sheet. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.
24. "The Looming Threat to Sex Education: A Resurgence of Federal Funding for
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2017.
25. "Comprehensive Sex Education Pros & Cons." Abstinence Only Sex Ed: Does it really
work? N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
26. Livni, Ephrat. "Study: Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Up." ABC News. ABC News Network,
n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
27. Masl, Molly. "Carnal knowledge: The sex ed debate." NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal
News Group, 01 July 2004. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
28. Masl, Molly. "Carnal knowledge: The sex ed debate." NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal
News Group, 01 July 2004. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
29. "Why Public Schools Need To Drop Abstinence-Only Programs." Odyssey. N.p., 23 May
2016. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
30. "Why Public Schools Need To Drop Abstinence-Only Programs." Odyssey. N.p., 23 May
2016. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
31. "Abstinence at core of State High sex ed." Abstinence at core of State High sex ed |
Voices of Central Pa. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
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