Colleges Must Fill the Sex Ed Gap Left by High Schools

Many of the U.S.’s social problems, such as inaccessible reproductive healthcare, stigmatized LGBTQIA+ identity and gender-based violence, stem from inadequate sex education. (Portland State University / Creative Commons)

When it comes to preparing youth to lead healthy, sex-positive lives, we know the state of sex education in our middle and high schools is dire. And as we stare down the barrel of a likely Roe reversal and the loss of abortion access across large swaths of the U.S., quality sex ed will take on an even greater importance. Many young adults graduate high school without ever having received comprehensive sex ed. In fact data shows that young people today are less likely to receive instruction on key sex education topics than they were 25 years ago.

New data from SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change, a group dedicated to advancing sex education, describes the urgency in the K-12 setting.

  • Only 16 states require instruction on condoms or contraception, and 34 states require schools to stress abstinence.
  • In 13 states sex education and HIV/STI instruction are not required to be age-appropriate, medically accurate, culturally responsive, or evidence-based.
  • What’s worse, seven states explicitly require instruction that discriminates against LGBTQIA+ people.

Not only are there differences between states in whether students receive comprehensive sex education, but there are widespread racial disparities, too. New data analyzing the National Survey of Family Growth showed that between 2015–2019, young men of color were less likely than their white peers to receive instruction on critical topics such as STIs and birth control before the first time they had sex.

Although teaching sex ed is often considered the responsibility of middle and high schools, colleges often end up dealing with the fallout related to this lack of education. Many first-year U.S. college students enroll in a college in the state where they live, so it’s especially important for states with lackluster high school sex ed to address it at the college level. College is when many young people strike out on their own for the first time, but university administrators still have a responsibility to keep students safe and equip them with the resources and information that will support them into adulthood.   

Risky Sexual Behavior Has Increased on College Campuses

The lack of sex education in high school means that many students are showing up on college campuses without the knowledge they need to lead safe and healthy sex lives—and that’s leading to risky behavior. New data from the American College Health Association (ACHA) shows that in the spring 2021 semester only 38 percent of male college students that reported having vaginal sex in the past 30 days always used a condom—down from 50 percent in 2018. The statistics were similar for women, with only 34 percent reporting to have always used a condom, down from 42 percent in 2018.

Unsurprisingly, new data also shows that positivity rates for gonorrhea and syphilis are on the rise. These alarming statistics highlight the need for more frequent and robust information about how to have safe sex on campus.

The sex ed gap is even more amplified for nonbinary students. Additional research recently looked at ACHA data regarding receipt of pregnancy prevention information among students aged 18–25 who were assigned female at birth. Nonbinary students were more likely than cisgender students to report having an unmet need for pregnancy prevention information from their college or university.

We know that many of our social problems today, such as inaccessible reproductive healthcare, stigmatized LGBTQIA+ identity and gender-based violence, stem from inadequate sex education. It’s another reason why colleges and universities must step up to fill the sex ed gap left by K-12 schools.

A Way Forward

To address these pressing issues, it’s essential that our lawmakers, K-12 school officials, college and university administrators, and community members understand the urgent need to advance comprehensive sex education. Those in postsecondary education administration should work to provide age-appropriate, medically accurate, culturally responsive and evidence-based information and resources through residential housing, the campus health clinic, classroom instruction and Greek life.

One way to make sure this happens is to require an in-person comprehensive sex education course—for example, through orientation—for all incoming freshmen. Or start a peer-to-peer sexual health group that holds events on campus to create safe spaces where students can freely discuss these issues.

College and university administrators also need to ensure that the comprehensive sex education they provide is inclusive of LGBTQIA+ students. The 2019 ACHA Sexual Health Services Survey shows that more than 90% of campus health centers provide information on consent, contraception, healthy relationships, sexual assault awareness and STI/HIV prevention, but only 78 percent of clinics provide information on gender identity and sexual orientation.

May is Sex Ed for All Month, which makes it the perfect time to advocate for comprehensive sex education at all colleges and universities. Providing students with this essential information will ensure that they have the agency to make responsible and informed decisions about their bodies, reduce stigma surrounding STDs, and help decrease campus sexual assault.

A crucial role of post-secondary education is to equip students with resources and information that support them into adulthood. If we fail to provide them with comprehensive sex education, we fail to prepare them for an essential part of life. 

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Kelley Dennings is a campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity and a family planning counselor. She holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of South Florida.