I didn’t set out to teach sex education. I intended to be a high school English teacher, and that’s what I became. I moved overseas, taught English, and I loved it, but a few years and graduate degree in Disability Studies later, I saw a posting for a job as a health educator at Family Planning Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and I applied. There, I specialized in teaching sex education and violence prevention to people with intellectual disabilities, their parents/carers, and professional organizations that served people with intellectual disabilities. I also taught in public and private schools, grades 2 – 12. I found my calling through that job: teaching comprehensive sex education to young people and families.
I found my calling in comprehensive sex education because I’m a survivor of sexual violence, much of which happened in my childhood, and such programs would have made a tremendous difference in my life as a young person. That’s because comprehensive sex education empowers young people to make informed decisions about their bodies and their choices, which collectively result in lower rates of unplanned pregnancy, lower rates of sexuallty transmitted infections, delays in sexual debut, and increases in protective behaviors including condom use, contraception use, and resource identification. It also makes people safer.
Comprehensive sex education can reduce sexual abuse
A recent study showed comprehensive, school-based sex education that promoted refusal skills was an independent protective factor in preventing sexual assault and the authors further hypothesize that “pre-college comprehensive sexuality education, including skills-based training in refusing unwanted sex, may be an effective strategy for preventing sexual assault in college.” That same study identifies risk factors for experiencing sexual assault, including adverse childhood experiences (ACE), and experiencing unwanted sexual contact before college. Taken together, it’s easy to understand why 89% of likely voters believe is it important to have sex education in middle school, and 98% believe it is important to have sex education in high school.
Time and time again, research confirms that comprehensive sex education works, sometimes known as Sexual Risk Reduction Education (SRRE), while abstinence-only sex education, sometimes known as Sexual Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE), does not. Black youth disproportionately receive abstinence-only programming, and is part of a large-scale failure to address equity across sex education programing and services. Given this body of evidence, and the countless testimonials of ineffective abstinence-only programs from young people and adults, alike, our federal government’s continued funding of these programs is a tragedy.
What we can do better
Policymakers need to listen to young people and educators before making decisions about policy and funding. Comprehensive sex education teaches so much more than pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection prevention: done well, it teaches age-appropriate lessons about body awareness, relationship skills, communication skills, negotiation skills, violence prevention, decision-making, self-acceptance, resource identification, and human diversity in grades K – 12.
Curriculums like Unhushed do just that. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must look to curriculums like Be Real. Be Ready, a curriculum created by San Francisco United School District teachers in collaboration with the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the Adolescent Health Working Group when making funding decisions regarding Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) grants.
State lawmakers must work to remove abstinence-only mandates from state law and fight for evidence-based comprehensive sex education. School administrators must adopt the most comprehensive curriculum their district allows. Parents and community members must press school boards to allow comprehensive programs, especially in places where abstinence-only programs dominate.
The message here is clear, comprehensive sex education reduces rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and sexual violence, especially when coupled with affordable and accessible contraception, affordable and accessible reproductive healthcare, and well-resourced community services. Everyone’s future is at stake in this matter. It’s well past time to stop allowing religious influence, propaganda, and societal stigma to inform how we disseminate vital, factual information to minors regarding sex and human sexuality.
Sex education may not have been the goal when I began my career but it has brought healing and hope for the future. My trauma and that of other survivors can’t be rewritten but I can take some solace from knowing I’m doing something with my life that will help others avoid the same fate. Comprehensive sex education can be directly responsible for reducing instances of sexual violence in both adults and children. But this can only happen if we let science and critical thinking win out and comprehensive sex education is widely implemented and normalized.