The extreme anti-abortion bills passing through state legislatures in states like Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Ohio has proven, once again, just how little lawmakers know about sex, pregnancy and reproduction.
In Ohio, Rep. John Becker claimed that ectopic pregnancies, which are deadly if not terminated, could be saved by “removing that embryo from the fallopian tube and reinserting it in the uterus.” This procedure doesn’t exist, and this process isn’t possible.
In Alabama, Rep. Clyde Chambliss claimed that it would be legal for people to get abortions as long as they didn’t know they were pregnant. How can you end a pregnancy that you aren’t even aware of?
These lawmakers desperately need a sex education crash-course. Unfortunately, so do students across the country.
Only 24 states and Washington, D.C. require sex education for students—and just 13 require it to be medically accurate. In 27 states, sex education must be centered on abstinence, even though studies have shown that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work. In 18 states, students learn only about sex during marriage.
This patchwork of sex ed policies means that teens don’t always get the same types of information—if they get much information at all. For students at the intersections, the failures of sex ed are multiplied.
LGBT teens, who comprise over a million high school students in the U.S., are notably suffering from a lack of sex education addressing their experiences. Only 12 states require a discussion of sexual orientation in sex ed—and whereas nine mandate that the discussion be inclusive, three require only negative information on sexual orientation.
LGBT adolescents experience greater rates of HIV, STIs and involvement in an unplanned pregnancy. Sex education designed for them is acutely needed. I am part of a team testing a comprehensive sex ed and HIV prevention program for gay and bisexual adolescent boys, but there is far more work to be done for sexual minority girls, gender minorities, and bisexual youth.
I grew up in Texas, which does not mandate sex education. On the first day of high school biology, in 1997, my syllabus listed a module on sex and reproduction; shortly after open house, where our parents learned about what each class was covering, we received an updated syllabus with this topic conspicuously absent. My sex education was ultimately reduced to one chapter of a health textbook that showed graphic photos of late-stage, untreated syphilis which remain seared into my brain.
Wanting to learn more, and petrified to ask my parents, I turned to late-night radio shows like Love Phones and then-nascent sex education websites like Scarleteen and Go Ask Alice. Well after my own teenage years, websites like those and the proliferation of social media has transformed the access young people have to information about sex—but reputable sources remain few and far between.
Many YouTube channels featuring young influencers without formal training in sexual health, for example, are more popular than research-driven resources. While Laci Green has over 1.4 million followers, Amaze—backed by universities and the United Nations’ sexual health agency—hovers at about 100,000.
Certainly, well-intentioned influencers can be a valuable resource, and sexual health information delivered by someone you can relate to might be more compelling. But teenagers desperate for sex education might not question their accuracy, which can be dangerous—and the life-altering impact of comprehensive sex education should not be relegated to word-of-mouth.
Chicago’s Public Schools has a developmentally-tailored curriculum aligned with evidence-based standards for sex education. Each school must have at least two teachers trained in this curriculum. Kindergarteners and their peers through fourth grade are required to receive five hours of sex education a year, and students in fifth through twelfth grade receive about 11. But backlash to such progress is often imminent: In California, for example, conservative groups are protesting new, medically-accurate and LGBT-inclusive sex education guidelines.
As a former teenager, and as a parent whose preschooler has already begun to ask questions about body parts, I know it can be awkward to talk to kids about sex. Yet as a researcher and psychologist, I know it is critical to start these conversations early and to have them regularly.
Parents should be making sure their teens are equipped with accurate sexual health information, but studies show that most American parents are not that comfortable talking about sex with their children, much less talking about sex and sexual orientation in a sex-positive and affirming way. After all, they probably didn’t get good sex ed either.
Many tools are available to help parents talk about sex accurately, inclusively, and appropriately for their kids’ developmental stage. I like Six Minute Sex Ed, a podcast from sex educator Kim Cavill that parents and kids can listen to together, then discuss afterward. Two bedtime staples in our home are sex educator Cory Silverberg’s accessible and vividly illustrated books What Makes a Baby and Sex is a Funny Word.
Although doctors may ask adolescent patients about sex as part of routine care, there is also room for improvement, particularly regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. Pediatricians should also initiate conversations about sex and sexuality, speak to youth alone, ensure youth know what information is kept confidential and be open and aware of their own biases and discomfort.
Quality sex education provides teenagers with the information and skills to be healthier people, better partners and more informed parents—and lawmakers—in the future. This current political moment is proof of what a difference comprehensive sex education could make.