The American Public School Taboo: Sex Education

Isabella Bennett and Wyatt Mosiman

Whether you learned about it in school, from peers, or elsewhere, you’re probably no stranger to conversations about sex. Sexual education is a staple in health class and a hot topic right now in American media. Shows like Netflix’s Big Mouth and Sex Education are being created with the purpose of sparking conversations about reproductive health, a topic that some may consider too taboo or scandalous for high schoolers.

The most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics reports that more than half of U.S. teens have had sex by the age of 18. This statistic stresses the need for an effective sexual education program, yet our country has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in developed nations. It seems that the sex ed we’re currently receiving may be falling short.

The current standard for this type of education in Minnesota is the abstinence-only approach. This is due to state and federal laws that favor abstinence-based programs for funding allocation. Recently rebranded by 42 U.S. Code § 710 as “sexual risk avoidance education,” to meet federal requirements, an education program must “[normalize] the optimal health behavior of avoiding non-marital sexual activity.” Additionally, education on contraceptives is not required (but must be accurate if taught), and “demonstrations, simulations, or distribution of contraceptive devices” by a federally funded education program is prohibited.

From a high school student perspective, there are major concerns about this education strategy. Curricula are also mandated by individual state laws, so they are not uniform across all 50 states, and, even then, each school district has its own approach. Education programs that promote abstinence until marriage are especially troubling; they imply that teens are not able to make healthy decisions for themselves and neglect to provide them with vital information to help them make those decisions safely (if they decide to make them).

Schools may also not even get to choose to teach anything else, as they may not receive funding for their program if they do not meet the legal standards. In public schools, abstinence education programs mean that the health curriculum has taken a political stance in the sense that these types of programs are discriminatory toward people who do not believe in waiting until marriage, children that are born outside of marriage, and people in the LGBT+ community who would benefit from more all-encompassing sex ed.

Not only can abstinence-only sex education be inadequate and discriminatory, but it can also be ineffective in preventing teen pregnancy. According to Dr. Kathrin Stanger-Hall and Dr. David Hall, professors at the University of Georgia who led a study on the relationship between approaches to sex ed and rates of teen pregnancy in 2011, “increasing emphasis on abstinence education is positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates […] data show clearly that abstinence-only education as a state policy is ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy and may actually be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S.”

Though abstinence is taught in the United States as the best option, this is no guarantee that teens will follow this path of avoiding sex and offers little information as to how to stay safe if they choose to be sexually active. More comprehensive sex education that includes information about contraceptives, meanwhile, provides instruction on how to stay safe while engaging in sexual activities.

Knowledge is power, and if people go on without that knowledge and are afraid to even discuss it in an academic setting, then how are they expected to go to the doctor when they notice something is wrong? How will they feel comfortable going to the hospital when society may have heavily enforced a message of shame and stigma?

Shielding teenagers, and even young adolescents, from sexuality, sex and topics in between is not going to protect them. If teens in the United States are shielded from the biological realities of sex and are expected to learn as they go, they’ll be ill-prepared when it comes to making healthy decisions in regard to their bodies and their relationships. By continuing to evade the topic instead of discussing the facts as they are, sexuality remains an American taboo.

People should not be ashamed about their bodies or their identities, and healthy conversations starting at a young age have actually been shown to make teens less likely to engage in sexual acts until they are older, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which is an organization that researches topics related to sexual health. It also motivates teens to make smarter, safer, and healthier decisions.

Lawmakers need to do more to make sex ed curriculum more responsive to the real lives of teenagers so that students don’t have to resort to Netflix shows to get that information instead.