“Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die.”
Anyone who has seen the classic movie "Mean Girls" can probably recall this line from the film’s sex ed. class, and they probably laughed at it, too. The sad reality is that, overall, America’s sex education system is not far from this. But the good news is that we can—and I believe, must—learn from countries and individual states that are overhauling and improving sex ed. in schools.
Because right now, as a nation, I’d argue that we are going through a sex ed. crisis. Here are some numbers to prove it.
- As of Nov. 1, only 22 states mandate sex education, and only 20 of those states mandate both sex and HIV education (thankfully, Minnesota is one of the latter).
- Of the 22 states that mandate sex education, only 13 require that the information taught be medically accurate and not based on opinions of sexuality (Minnesota is not one of those 13). Examples of non-medical “facts” that have been taught in schools include things like: “HIV can be spread through sweat and tears,” “Condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse,” and “Half of gay male teenagers in the U.S. have tested positive for HIV.”
- When it comes to the states that do teach sex ed. (mandated or not), 18 require that contraceptive information be provided, while 25 states have laws requiring that the class must absolutely stress abstinence. A 2009 study showed that, among teens aged 18–19, 41 percent report that they know little or nothing about condoms and 75 percent say they know little or nothing about the contraceptive pill.
As a country, we have adopted a fear-based curriculum of sex education; our form of educating young teenagers on a very normal and healthy aspect of life is to say things like “condoms never work” and proceed to show the class horrifying pictures of STIs.
The reality is that 95 percent of Americans have premarital sex, and pushing things like abstinence-only until marriage (and virginity pledges) has proven to be ineffective: studies show that abstinence only education is failing and has no impact on teen pregnancy, STI rates or abstinence rates whatsoever. In fact, new research shows that it could actually deter contraceptive use as it promotes the idea that sex is unacceptable and shameful, steering students away from getting proper health and reproductive resources, like contraceptives. The state of Mississippi has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the nation while holding an abstinence-only sex ed. standard.
Minnesota, in comparison to other states, does fairly well on the spectrum of quality sex ed. We mandate both sex and HIV education, however we do not require that the information be medically accurate. Nor do we require that the information that’s taught be unbiased and without the promotion of religion. This is a problem.
Sex is inevitable. It will happen regardless of your beliefs or opinion on the matter. That’s why I believe that it is the school’s job to teach, empower and enable students to make their own healthy decisions when it comes to their bodies and their comfort.
More and more places are starting to adopt better sex education policies. California just became the first state to require lessons on sexual consent in schools. Some places start sex ed. as early as kindergarten (while keeping it age appropriate, of course). A study from Georgetown University shows that starting sex ed. at a young age helps prevent unintended pregnancies, STI’s, unsafe abortions and even maternal deaths.
The Netherlands has successfully adopted a comprehensive “sexuality education” curriculum. As soon as kindergarten, kids learn about their bodies and their anatomy by the proper names. Throughout elementary, they learn about the changes they will go through during puberty, what “good touch” and “bad touch” are, how to properly take care of their bodies (and body image), how to respect someone and appropriate signs of affection. As students move into junior high, they learn more about what is involved in sex, the risks (like STDs and pregnancy), resources on how to stay safe (access to contraceptives), how to say no and how to respect someone who is saying no, and types of healthy relationships and boundaries. In high school, they study these topics more in-depth, discussing violence, healthy communication, body image and physical and emotional health.
In the Netherlands, they believe, as I do, that sex ed. absolutely must include and define consent and its importance. Affirmative consent, consent that is communicated, agreed upon, conscious, respectful and voluntary, needs to become a social and cultural norm. It needs to be what is expected in a healthy sexual encounter, and that starts with sex ed.
Models like the Netherland’s extend sexual education beyond just the risks of sex, and involve the integrity, anatomy, freedom and individuality of a person. I believe that Minnesota, and all states, should move in this direction and offer quality, robust, accurate and empowering sex ed. in schools. Doing so would be within the purview of schools’ jobs: not to impart morals, but to equip students to be safe, healthy and educated as they develop their own.
Asyana Eddy recently graduated from the FAIR School Downtown, but was a full-time PSEO student at Minneapolis Community & Technical College. She is passionate about women's issues, health and art.
The MinnCAN blog allows Minnesota teachers, administrators, parents and advocates to share their thoughts on key education issues. Blogging fellows' and guest bloggers' views and opinions are solely their own.