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Education Policy National Op-Ed

Let’s talk about sex

By Fernanda Figueroa

When people hear “sex education,” they might envision classes focused simply on sex and what it involves, but in reality, there is a lot more to it. Sex education encompasses a wide range of topics intended to teach individuals about human sexuality. This includes emotional and physical relations, responsibilities, anatomy, autonomy, as well as reproductive health and rights. 

As of today, only 29 states mandate sex education courses. As a result, school districts are left to decide what type of sex education students receive, if any at all. This type of discretion can allow for inadequate material to be taught, failing to prepare young adults to make healthy and safe decisions. The United States needs to mandate a comprehensive sex education curriculum for all public schools that moves beyond teaching abstinence to provide comprehensive instruction on birth control, STIs, consent, sexuality and anatomy. 

A recent report from the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) found that 35 states require schools to emphasize abstinence, while only 16 states require instruction on contraceptives.  Additionally, 15 states do not require sex education to be age appropriate or medically accurate. Only nine states require consent to be taught, only seven states include information about sexual orientation, and nine states explicitly require instruction that discriminates against the LGBTQ+ community.

A lack of an adequate sex education curriculum leaves young adults unprepared to understand their sexual and reproductive health. Comprehensive sex education teaches young adults about puberty and what it encompasses – helping them make sense of the desires they may have. It also provides an insight into sexuality, identity, consent. We must empower our youth with the knowledge and skills needed to enjoy their sexuality, physically and emotionally, including an understanding of healthy relationships – whether platonic or romantic.

Sex education is especially important for teenagers who are experiencing changes during puberty they may not understand. This includes teaching them about menstruation, a topic which some still consider taboo. Regardless of their sex, all students need to properly understand what menstruation is – especially since it can happen as early as the age of nine. Imagine being nine years old and having no clue as to why you are bleeding. Think of how terrifying that might be? 

It is just as important  for males to have a proper understanding of their own bodies, for them to know that erections sometimes just happen for no reason and that is okay, to know the dangers of testicular and colon cancer and what they can do to prevent them. 

Additionally, comprehensive sex education can also provide a better understanding of one’s anatomy. Knowing one’s anatomy helps young people recognize where everything is, what it is called, and how it works. According to a 2020 survey commissioned by INTIMNA, an estimated 25% of U.S. women don’t know where their vagina is and 46% could not identify the cervix. This highlights the need to fix our sex education system.

Young adults are naturally curious and have questions that need to be answered. Add hormones to the equation and if those questions go unanswered, safe and healthy decisions are unlikely to be made.

Finally, comprehensive sex education must include the LGBTQ+ community. Young adults who are starting to navigate who they are becoming or processing their identity need access to accurate and unbiased information – especially because LGBTQ+ youth are particularly vulnerable to bullying and harassment. According to a 2013 GLSEN survey, 85% of LGBTQ+  students experience harrassment, 56% of students face discriminatory school policies and practices, and 30% miss school due to feeling unsafe. It is essential to ensure LGBTQ+ students have a space where they can feel safe to ask questions, where they can be properly taught about STIs, intercourse, sexual health, and how to navigate the healthcare system as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

The U.S. must mandate a comprehensive sex education curriculum for all public schools that not only teaches about abstinence but about birth control, STIs, consent, sexuality and anatomy. It’s what our students need and deserve. 

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