Let’s Talk About Sex Ed During COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has simultaneously exposed the flaws in the current sex educational system in the U.S. and provided an opportunity to push for new methods of teaching comprehensive sex ed. 

Sex ed does not become unimportant during a pandemic. On the contrary, the need for access to medically accurate and age-appropriate information has only increased. (Alliance for Excellent Education / Flickr)

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, access to sexual education was often inconsistent, non-inclusive or even medically wrong. Only 29 states, plus D.C., require any sex education to be taught at all. Even when sex ed is taught, only nine states require curriculums be inclusive of LGBTQ people, and only 18 require that the information be medically accurate. Sex ed is often taught by gym or health teachers that aren’t properly trained on how to provide age-appropriate, inclusive information, and too many students are taught abstinence-based curriculums that are often misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these flaws in the U.S. sex education system. In many cases, schools have simply abandoned teaching sex ed. Already not a priority, it has become nonexistent, or poorly translated into a virtual format. When schools did attempt to teach sex ed online, they faced unique challenges that both teachers and students were not prepared for, such as attempting to conduct sensitive discussions without being able to guarantee privacy.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Young People’s Sexual Health

Sex ed is only one part of a larger system that ensures young people can make responsible choices about their sexual and reproductive health. Access to reproductive health care clinics and the ability to afford contraception, abortions and STI tests are also essential. Unfortunately, the pandemic has limited access to all of these services, vastly decreasing young people’s autonomy over their health and bodies. And perhaps most critically, if students aren’t receiving comprehensive sex education, they won’t be able to make informed decisions about their sexual health in the future.

Mackenzie Piper, senior manager of programs at Power to Decide, a reproductive rights nonprofit and champion of high-quality sex ed, explains:

“Prior to the pandemic, there were already a lot of challenges to ensuring that young people were accessing high quality sex ed. And then, the pandemic disrupted and strained school systems, and very much disrupted sex ed. And I think one of the biggest things that was asked was, “How do we teach sex ed in a virtual setting, and how do we uphold someone’s ability to keep privacy?”

We’re talking about subjects that feel really personal or intimate, and we want to create a safe space for young people. It’s really hard to navigate that in a virtual setting, where, one, you can’t guarantee every young person has access to the technology in the first place, and then two, is in a private space where they can be open to that conversation.”

Outside of school, young people faced similar problems, according to Rachel Fey, vice president of policy and strategic partnerships at Power to Decide:

“Because we have such a decentralized system, there is a lot of programming that happens outside of the school day, through organizations that serve young people in a variety of ways, whether that’s clinics, after school programs, things like Boys and Girls clubs, and local organizations. In many of those cases, those groups have received a small amount of federal funding to do that work, to deliver high quality, evidence-based sex ed. But a lot of that has been disrupted.” 

These disruptions are having serious impacts on young people’s ability to maintain their sexual and reproductive health. “Research points to positive health outcomes from high quality sex ed, like delays in sexual initiation. And then when they are initiating, it increases the use of things like condoms and contraception, in addition to reducing the risk of STIs and lowering unplanned pregnancies,” Piper told Ms. “I also think something we’re going to start seeing in research is the positive outcomes of having media literacy and communication skills. It gives young people the opportunity to gain skills to navigate relationships, navigate negotiations and consent and to manage their own sexual health.”

So when students don’t receive this information, or have it delayed by a couple of years, it has very real consequences—particularly during a pandemic that is delaying access to contraception. A lack of sex ed, combined with limited access to reproductive health clinics, has led to increased cervical cancer and STI rates. Sex ed does not become unimportant during a pandemic. On the contrary, the need for access to medically accurate and age-appropriate information has only increased.

The Silver Lining: Online Resources Modeling a Better Future

The COVID-19 pandemic has simultaneously exposed the flaws in the current sex educational system in the U.S. and provided an opportunity to push for new methods of teaching comprehensive sex ed. 

With schools struggling to cover sex ed virtually, online resources like Scarleteen, Amaze, Planned Parenthood’s Roo and Power to Decide’s Bedsider—and even TikTok—have been picking up a lot of the slack.

“Those of us who care about making sure young people have all the information they need, we need to facilitate those conversations in new ways, through digital platforms, through online information,” said Fey.

From providing information about the different types of birth control to allowing young people to ask via online chat the questions they may not want to say over Zoom, these online resources show the path forward towards a more equitable, inclusive sex ed system. 

In fact, online resources are often more inclusive and educational than school curriculums. They offer young people privacy and the ability to find the information they need—not what their state chooses to offer them. LGBTQ youth are five times as likely to search for health information online than their straight peers—likely because many school sex ed curriculums center heterosexual sex and erase or stigmatize other sexualities. As advocates continue to fight for comprehensive school curriculums, these online sites should serve as a guide for how to destigmatize sex and provide inclusive, relevant and accurate information.

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Take Action to Demand High-Quality Sex Education

May is #SexEdForAll month, where many different organizations are coming together to fight for increased access to comprehensive sex ed at the individual, local, state and federal levels. 

At the individual level, Power to Decide’s #TalkingisPower campaign is designed to help adults start conversations about sex and relationships with the young people in their lives.

“In addition to formal school sex ed, we cannot forget the number of conversations that are happening inside the home, where young people are talking to trusted adults about sex, love, and relationships,” said Fey. “In 2020, a majority of adults agreed that sheltering in place during COVID provided increased opportunities for conversations with their young people about sex, love, relationships and birth control.”

Fey added:

“One of the things [young people need] is a trusted adult they can talk to. That does not have to be a parent. But the polling consistently shows that if you ask parents who they think young people want to talk to, they will say, ‘Anybody but me.’ And when you ask young people, they will say, more than anyone else, their parents. But I think anybody can be that person, that mentor, and Power to Decide has a lot of tools to help facilitate those conversations and empower adults to be that champion in a young person’s life.”

sex ed
This May, Let's Talk About Sex Ed During COVID
(Power to Decide)

At the local level, Fey urges everyone to pay attention to school boards and local governments, and make it clear that all young people deserve access to high-quality sex education. And at the state and federal level, #SexEdForAll month is a great opportunity to advocate for policies that ensure young people can access the information and services they need.

During the first week of May, Representative Pramila Jayapal introduced a resolution to officially declare May Sex Ed For All month, calling on her fellow lawmakers to support the implementation of comprehensive sex ed in schools. Bills like the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (REHYA) and the Youth Access to Sexual Health Services Act (YASHS) would set aside federal funding for sex education, and prohibit federal money from funding abstinence-only curriculums. 

Feminists must also push for increased funding for programs like the Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH), the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) and Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP), which provide financial support to evidence-based sex ed programs.

Finally, continuing to protect the Title X family planning program, which ensures access to sexual and reproductive health care services for young and low-income people, is critical. After all, young people don’t just need information about sex, but also to be able to act on that information and protect their own sexual and reproductive health. You can make your voice heard by encouraging the Biden administration to undo the domestic gag rule that resulted in over 900 clinics losing Title X funding.

This May, sex ed must be a priority. All young people deserve access to inclusive, non-stigmatized and medically-accurate information about sex, love and relationships. And while the pandemic has decimated schools’ ability to provide this information, it has also given feminists an opportunity to clearly see the flaws in the current system. Working together at the individual, state and federal levels, we can ensure a better future for all Americans.

“Sex ed is for everyone, and it’s all through your lifetime,” said Piper. “There are conversations that start early, and are often. We have a misconception in the United States that it’s ‘a talk’—when in reality, given that high quality sex ed helps promote health, this is something that we deserve. It should be offered and accessible to all people across their lifespan, because it promotes health and lets us live our best lives.”

You can support Power to Decide’s contraceptive access fund, BC Benefits, here. Just $5 will provide a month of birth control pills to someone who lost access to their contraception during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Katie Fleischer (she/they) is a Ms. editorial assistant working on the Front and Center series and Keeping Score.