We don’t expect kids to know how to play the piano, do pre-calculus, or drive a car without first being taught. That would be ridiculous. But for some reason, we expect them to figure out how to have safe, respectful, consensual sex all on their own. And we expect them to suddenly and magically have the information they need to protect themselves and respect their partners when the decision to have sex is made (for “purity” pushers—ideally on their wedding night).
But sexual health and sexual intimacy are complicated issues, with many variables (gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, history of abuse, etc.), and they need to be taught just like chemistry, physics, and foreign language.
And yet, only 21 states plus D.C. require any form of sex education in public schools, and only 18 of those states require that the teachings include medically accurate information about contraceptives. In the majority of our country’s states, sex education is a total free-for-all, taught, in many cases, according to the whims of unqualified instructors who blatantly lie about the effectiveness of contraception, including condoms, and condemn sexually active students to a life of shame, or worse.
President Obama struck all funding for abstinence-only education ($85 million in 2016) from his 2017 budget, but his budget has been ignored by Republicans in Congress and will probably be rejected when it is finally debated (October 1, the start of the fiscal year, is the deadline).
Meanwhile, there is no permanent federal funding stream for comprehensive sex education, although $176 million was provided for medically accurate, age-appropriate programs in 2016 through the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPP) and the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). The President’s 2017 budget calls for an increase in TPP and an extension of PREP for another five years.
Some members of Congress are working to add a dedicated funding stream to medically accurate sex education. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (H.R.1706 and S.2765) in 2015. The companion bills would require the Department of Health and Human Services to award competitive grants for: (1) comprehensive sex education for adolescents; (2) comprehensive sex education provided by institutions of higher education; and (3) training faculty and staff to teach comprehensive sex education to elementary and secondary school students. These bills haven’t seen any action in months, however.
This issue of our magazine explores the failures of sex education for American kids and teens, and also examines the effectiveness of “purity” pledges—promises made by kids, to their parents and to God, that they will not have sex until marriage. You can probably guess how effective those pledges end up being.
Sex is one of humanity’s primary biological imperatives. It is as necessary to the survival of our species as eating nutritious food and steering clear of large predators on the open savannah. By making it into something dirty and shameful, we make it less safe and less enjoyable, and that should be considered the most shameful thing of all.