The quality, content, and mere presence of sex-education varies wildly across the United States. Only 29 states and the District of Columbia require that sex-education be taught in schools. Of these states, a mere ten require that it be medically accurate. Even “medical accuracy” is defined differently across states. Only 20 states and DC require their sex-education programs to provide information about contraception, and 29 states require their programs to stress abstinence until marriage. State policies also vary in the degree of parental consent which they require; a majority of states allow parents to opt out of sex education on behalf of their children, and four states actually require parents to actively consent before their children can receive instruction.
Without consistent sex-education guidelines, states are free to approach related issues, such as sexual orientation and consent, as they see fit. Only 17 states require any discussion of sexual orientation, and seven of these states require that sex-education programs exclusively provide negative information about LGBT+ sexual orientations; South Carolina bans its schools from mentioning different sexual orientations except in the context of STIs, and Oklahoma requires its programs to teach that “homosexual activity” is considered to be “responsible for contact with the AIDS virus.” Only three states prohibit sex-education programs from promoting religion and only eight states require their programs to discuss consent. Some states have begun to reform their policies and adopt comprehensive sex-education curricula, but this process is incredibly gradual. So long as the states are responsible for the maintenance and operation of their public schools, a certain degree of variance among sex-education programs is inevitable.The federal government needs to accelerate this progress by creating grants for states that adopt legislation to require comprehensive, medically accurate sex-education.
So far, federal efforts to incentivize sex-education have focused on ineffective and harmful programs, the shortcomings of which cause very real harm to students. The federal government cannot directly legislate states’ sex-education curricula, but it has been able to influence them through federal funding programs. These grants overwhelmingly focus on encouraging states to adopt abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) programs, whose efficacy has been disputed by a wealth of scientific evidence.
Federal funding for AOUM programs began to surge in 1996 and continued to increase until the Obama Administration. While it has yet to return to the level of the pre-Obama years, funding for abstinence programs has experienced a resurgence under the Trump Administration. Since 1996, the federal government has spent over $2.1 billion funding AOUM education. These funds are currently channeled through two different mechanisms. The first provides grants for states that adopt programs that meet the grant’s criteria, while the second gives funding directly to organizations who develop AOUM programs, even if they are never guaranteed to be adopted by schools.
Until it was rebranded in 2017, the first grant (included under Title V of the Social Security Act) required recipients to craft their sex-education programs according to a set of eight criteria. These guidelines instructed eligible programs to focus on encouraging abstinence as their “exclusive purpose” and prohibited discussion of contraceptives unless in reference to their failure. Recipients were required to teach children that a monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is “the expected standard of human sexual activity.”
As the Obama Administration worked to pull funding from these programs, it simultaneously oversaw the creation of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program in 2010. This program sought to provide funding for organizations creating medically accurate, age appropriate sex-education curricula. However, its efficacy has been limited. The TPPP still provides funding to some AOUM programs, and it does not guarantee that its programs are ever actually taught in school.
During the Trump Administration, these grants have been cloaked in misleading public health language that only makes them more dangerous. In 2017, Congress rebranded the Title V grant with a mandate that grantees “implement education exclusively on sexual risk avoidance (meaning voluntarily refraining from sexual activity).” The substance of this requirement is exactly the same, but on a superficial level the loaded “abstinence-only” term has been replaced with terminology co-opted from public health prevention strategies related to smoking and illicit drug use. AOUM programs, newly rebranded as Sexual Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE), now use terms like “healthy relationships” and “youth empowerment,” appearing to respect young peoples’ decision-making agency, while continuing to offer dangerous curricula that have not substantively changed.
Congress continues to take every available opportunity to extend funding for these programs. The $2 trillion CARES Act, a massive stimulus bill signed into law on March 27th to address the economic repercussions of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, includes a section which extends funding for the SRAE program through November, though it does also extend the Personal Responsibility Education Program, an Obama-era grant which provides funds for state agencies that develop evidence-based sex-education programs.
A substantial body of evidence points to AOUM’s ineffectiveness. Not only does abstinence-only education fail to actually increase abstinence among students, but by withholding information about the use of contraceptives these programs deprive students of the knowledge necessary to keep themselves safe when they do have eventually have sex. It should be no surprise that the states which place the most emphasis on abstinence in sex-education are those with the highest rates of teen pregnancy.
Beyond being merely ineffective, AOUM’s goal does not focus on protecting students’ health. The congressional staff members who composed language of the original Title V provision wrote that it “was intended to align Congress with the social tradition…that sex should be confined to married couples.” This is indicative of the larger problem with abstinence education: its primary purpose is not to enable people to have safe and healthy sexual experiences, but to enforce a socially and religiously conservative set of values that threatens young people’s health. Nearly all Americans will have sex before marriage, and virtually everyone will need to know how to practice safe sex at some point, even if exclusively within marriage. It is far better to learn how to put on a condom in a short demonstration that Title V funding explicitly forbids, than to experiment through trial and error. If the question is whether to prioritize the prevention of premarital sex or the prevention of unsafe sex, American schools outght to be in a better place than they currently are.
There is a better way. Recent efforts at reform have centered on promoting “comprehensive curriculum,” which includes information about abstinence while focusing on contraception, consent, and sexuality. The guidelines created by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States include strategies for teaching about issues such as gender roles, sexuality, and consent to students of different ages. For example, educators are encouraged to teach early elementary school students that human beings can be romantically intimate with people of the same gender, and to discuss with students how stereotypes about gender roles can lead to issues such as relationship conflict and sexual harassment. This is the well-rounded, inclusive sex-education that students need and deserve.
Some states have begun to adopt comprehensive sex-education curricula. California notably enacted the California Healthy Youth Act in 2015, which requires all schools to adopt sex-education curricula that are comprehensive, unbiased, and conform to a rigorous standard of medical accuracy. Most recently, Washington State’s Governor Jay Inslee signed a similar bill into law on March 27th of this year. These measures are important progress, but there is still a long way to go; many states still do not require sex-education at all, and the process of passing these reforms through each individual state legislature is a long one.
The federal government can and should help this process by cutting all funding mechanisms for AOUM and replacing them with a robust grant system to encourage states to adopt comprehensive sex-education curricula. These grants should go directly to states and should be contingent on the adoption of mandatory, comprehensive, medically accurate sex-education. This would go a long way toward addressing the vast disparities among sex-education in different states and undoing the practical and moral harms of abstinence-only education. So long as federal funding for AOUM programs continues, Washington will be part of the problem. It’s time to become part of the solution.
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