Recently, the debate about sex education has grown into a heated one with comprehensive sex education and LGBTQ inclusion at the forefront. Some conservative politicians have advocated for continued use of abstinence only programs despite the evidence that these programs have been ineffective at reducing sexual interactions and consequences between teens and children. Opponents of comprehensive sex education claim that teaching children and teens about sex in a positive light and about forms of contraception will make teens and children more likely to engage in sexual activity.
However, keeping children and teens from having access to information about contraception and healthy sexual relationships has largely been shown to increase pregnancy rates, STI/STD rates, and leave young people in the dark about how to negotiate consent in relationships. Comprehensive sexual education provides children and teens with the tools to engage in safer sex practices, understand the importance of consent, and provide information about healthy relationships that are not confined to harmful, stereotypical gender roles.
Abstinence-only Sexual Education
In an article published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the federally funded abstinence-only curricula of the United States mostly contained false information with no scientific basis. Also, those who pledged to remain virgins until marriage still got sexually transmitted diseases at a similar rate to teens not in these programs. A lesson in one of the curricula claims that the success rate of condom use is unknown and abortion makes five to ten percent of women sterile. Both of these claims are false and are mainly tactics to scare teens and children. In order for these programs to receive federal funding, they cannot contain information about safer sex practices and contraception use except in regards to failure rates. These programs also confine the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples and don’t mention LGBTQ related information except in regards to sexually transmitted diseases.
Gender, Consent, and Sexual Education
Even though abstinence-only education programs fail at providing factual information about sex, they are rife with information promoting stereotypical gender roles. In a study conducted by Beechey and Moon (2015), it was found that among the most used abstinence-only sexual education programs, males and females are presented as innately opposite, complementary beings. These programs promote conformity to traditional gender roles and repeatedly present women as being more emotional, relational, and dependent. Men are presented as being more logical, detached, and independent.
These prescribed gender roles promote a belief that young women lack agency and perpetuates “a culture that accepts violence against women.” In past events of men attacking and sometimes killing women who rejected their advances, the concept that good men do not receive the women they believe they deserve directly reflects stereotypical female dependence and male independence. Sex education programs need to teach about consent and agency in relationships, as the lack thereof has not been beneficial to the health of children and teens.
Comprehensive Sex Education
In an international sit-out protesting sexual education curriculums, protesters expressed fear of children losing innocence and the ability to just be kids. Claims that these programs promote an LGBTQ agenda and expose children to pornography miss the point of these programs. Ignorance breeds hatred, especially among children who are trying to navigate the environment around them and are susceptible to engaging in bullying or being bullied. Comprehensive sex education aims to provide children and teens with information about healthy friendships, romantic relationships, sexual relationships, sexual reproduction, identification of organs, understanding and preventing bullying, LGBTQ awareness and competency, and several other similar topics.
An excellent example of this is the 3Rs (Rights, Respect, and Responsibility) curriculum formulated by the Advocates for Youth. This curriculum spans kindergarten through 12th grade and contains age-appropriate lessons that build off of each other. Comprehensive sex education involves consent education that is imperative for children and teens to learn as they are building friendships, acquaintanceships, and romantic/sexual relationships. No education or abstinence education without comprehensive elements leaves children and teens vulnerable to the things opponents of comprehensive sex education are trying to protect young people from.
The opposition to comprehensive sex education functions off of the belief that knowledge of sex, relationships, and contraception makes young people more likely to engage in sexual behavior prematurely and corrupts their minds. However, abstinence-only education has been providing false information that promotes gender stereotypes and discredit the efficacy of contraception. This has led to children and teens engaging in unsafe sexual activity and unhealthy relationships.
In a recent research study, an abstinence-only education pilot with comprehensive elements that cover condom use, contraception, and do not portray sex in a negative and immoral light was found to be effective in reducing the number of sexual encounters and partners of African American sixth and seventh graders months after the theory based abstinence-only program. Even though this intervention was successful in reducing sexual encounters, it does not meet the federal requirements for abstinence-only education programs.
With the amount of evidence that indicates the ineffectiveness and dangerous effects federally-approved abstinence-only education or no education, it seems that it would be logical for comprehensive sex education to occur in schools. Most parents support sexual education that provides children and teens with accurate information. Having parents, religious leaders, and communities review the content in comprehensive sex education programs could reduce the fear that comprehensive sex education takes away children’s innocence.
The International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education document provided by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization gives information on tailoring the education to the local community (culture, religion, demographics, etc.) and would allow those who oppose this type of education to understand the benefits of this type of education for their community. Getting communities on board, especially religious leaders, with the implementation of age-appropriate sex education would help support for it spread throughout the United States.
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