Who Decides?

When looking at the current state of sex education in America, some questions immediately come to mind. How did this come about? Who decides what kind of sexual education is taught in schools and what material needs to be covered or stressed? What persons and agencies have an influence on public sex ed and can potentially make improvements to it?

The answer is, as always, complicated. There is no one single person or department that decides the fate of sexuality education in America. Rather, there is a variety of influences that act on several levels: federal, state, and local. Each one has a potential to make a difference, but some agencies are better equipped to have a significant effect on sex ed in schools. Below is a brief overview of the main actors:

Federal: The U.S. federal government does not have a direct role in sexual education. As prescribed in the Constitution, education in general is largely a state and local responsibility. Thus, the federal government has little control over what is taught in public schools. However, federal agencies can still influence education through their allocation of funding.

Sex education specifically is funded not through the Department of Education, but through the Department of Health and Human Services, which distributes funds to school systems and community-based agencies. From 1996-2010, over $1.5 billion in federal funding was spent on abstinence-only programs. Since then, abstinence-only programs have been found ineffective, but while their federal funding decreased, $50 million is still spent every year to fund abstinence-only sex education.

Beginning in 2010, two sources of federal funding for comprehensive sex education became available: The Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) and The President’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI). Both of these programs grant funding to schools and public agencies that implement medically-accurate, evidence-based programs that cover both abstinence and contraception. This is certainly a step in the right direction. However, while funding can encourage more schools to teach comprehensive sex ed, it cannot solve the issue of inconsistency: it is possible that within one state one or two schools will teach comprehensive sex ed to receive these federal funds, while the rest cover abstinence-only sex education or none at all.

State: State government has the most power in determining sex education in its state. States can mandate that sexuality education be taught, require schools to teach about STDs or HIV/AIDS, set state-wide guidelines for topics, choose curricula, and approve textbooks. These mandates and guidelines can be either governed by law, as passed by state legislature and signed by the governor, or established by the State Department of Education. State departments of education are also generally responsible for disbursing state and federal funds to local school districts, so they have the power to monitor how the programs are being implemented before distributing the funds.

Because the most important decisions about sexual education are made at this level, sex ed policy varies greatly by state. Each state has the right to create its own mandates on whether or not sex education is required, what kind of content is to covered, and how the material should be presented. As discussed in the previous post, this creates a lot of inconsistency in terms of what students can expect to learn depending on where they live.

Local: On the local level, decisions are made by school boards, administrators, and teachers. Some districts also create special advisory committees that determine what content is covered in health and sexuality courses in public schools. Teachers, clergy, public health officials, parents, and even students can make their voices heard in these advisory boards.

Local school boards have the authority to determine the school district budget and priorities, dictate the sequence and scope of the curriculum, and approve textbooks for school courses. All the standards and requirements set by school boards must comply with state law. Thus, it is also a local responsibility to ensure that schools teach sex ed programs that satisfy state policy and any other requirements if they receive additional funding. Overall, local agencies such as school boards can expand on sexuality education that is required by the state, but they cannot institute any changes in violation with existing policy.

In conclusion, there are many agents that affect public sex education, with the most powerful being the state. But that also means that there are many different ways to bring about change. Whether it’s the federal government that directs all sex ed funding towards comprehensive education, state law that mandates content on contraceptives, or a student who advocates for accurate and useful sex ed courses on an advisory committee, there are many opportunities to make a difference. And I’m hopeful that one day all students will have access to the education they need to lead healthy and happy (sex) lives.


“Sexuality Education Q & A.” SIECUS. Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, Web. 08 Apr. 2017.

Bridges, Emily, and Debra Hauser. “Youth Health and Rights in Sex Education.” Future of Sex Education. Advocates for Youth, May 2014. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.

A Call For Consistency

Like mentioned last time, The Guttmacher Institute is a research institute that focuses on reproductive rights advocates for better reproductive health. They have a wide variety of articles and reports, which could be of great interest to anyone interested in the topic. Today, we’re looking at another report that was compiled by them: a detailed overview of the current requirements (or lack thereof) in the United States. Below are two charts that synthesize the information on state policies that can be found at NCSL’s full list of relevant legislation.

credit: Guttmacher Institute

The first graph provides a summary of the general requirements when it comes to sex and HIV education. One of the most striking statistics is the fact that only 24 states and District of Columbia are mandated to provide sex education. That’s less than half the country! The situation with mandatory HIV education is slightly better: 34 states and DC require it.

Another surprising fact: only in 13 states the sex information that is taught needs to “be medically accurate.” One of the assumptions that many of us hold is that when we send children off to school, they’ll be learning accurate information. Apparently that doesn’t have to be the case for 37 states, where there are no regulations against providing unscientific or plainly false information.

There are also some interesting footnotes that relate to the very specific regulations that pertain to specific states. For example, schools in Mississippi can provide information on contraception and STIs only with permission from State Department of Education. In Tennessee sex education is required if “the pregnancy rate for 15-17 teen women is at least 19.5 or higher.” That seems like a very high percentage—what about the 19% of teens who do have an unintended pregnancy? And why are students denied sex ed information due to an arbitrarily picked number?

Probably the only statistic in this chart that can be interpreted in a positive way is the section about the parental role. Even though it largely has to do with limiting sex ed via parents opting-out for their children, I still think it is important that parents are bought into the conversation and their role as educators is encouraged and recognized.

credit: Guttmacher Institute

This chart provides information on what kind of content is mandated if and when sex and HIV education is provided. Unfortunately, few states are required to provide education about relevant life skills: avoiding coercion (i.e. sexual assault, rape) is taught by 21 states and DC, healthy decision making by 22 states, and the importance of family connections by 11 states. There is also a lot of discrepancy in terms of how sexual orientation is taught: some states aren’t required to cover it at all, some are mandated to encourage an inclusive attitude, while others do the opposite: promoting a negative view of non-normative orientation.

Probably the most important part of this chart is the emphasis on mandatory abstinence education. When providing sex education, 37 states are required to cover and/or stress abstinence; this number goes up to 39 for HIV education. The number of states required to cover contraception is significantly lower. For HIV education, 16 states are required to cover abstinence but don’t have to cover any information regarding condom use. This illustrates the type of abstinence-only sex education that was discussed previously.

It is very easy to get confused while looking at these graphs-and that is exactly the problem. The requirements in terms of sexual education in public schools are incredibly varied across the states. Equally varied is the content that different states’ schools are required to include into their sex/HIV curriculum. This doesn’t reflect the commonly held idea that all people, especially children, should have equal opportunities and equal access to education.

In addition to making sexual education requirements more uniform, the content of sex ed curriculum needs to become more coherent. As outlined in the last post, comprehensive sex education (which includes information about STDs and contraception in addition to abstinence) shows better results than abstinence-only sex ed. Thus, there should be a shift from abstinence-focused education that predominates much of the content towards a more inclusive approach. There also needs to be more consistency in addressing the issues of sexual orientation and the importance of consent across the different states.

The current system needs a reform: we need to move towards a more sensible and a more consistent sex ed system—so that our children are informed on how to stay healthy and promote positive sexual experiences.


“Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute. Guttmacher Institute, 01 Mar. 2017. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

“State Policies on Sex Education in Schools.” NCSL. National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 Feb. 2016. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.

Two Approaches to Sex Ed

The Guttmacher Institute is a research and policy organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States and globally. Last year, they released a very interesting report that summarizes research on the sources and types of sex education for American teens. It provides a very detailed overview with a focus on the teenager’s perspective. Here are some of the more important and curious findings.

This graph illustrates some interesting trends over the last several years. It turns out that fewer teenagers are learning about methods of birth control from formal sources, which can be defined as schools, youth centers, and other community groups. This trend makes sense in relation to the other part of the graph, which shows that the number of teenagers who do not receive any birth control information is increasing. Thus, fewer teenagers are learning about birth control in general, and less teens learn about the different methods of contraception. On the other hand, more teenagers are learning about saying no to sex.

These findings can be summarized by saying that in formal settings there is a shift from educating teens about birth control towards teaching them to say no to sex. These two different methods are often categorized as comprehensive approach and abstinence-only approach. Comprehensive sex education also includes abstinence as one of the options, but it also provides information about human sexuality, age of consent, availability of contraception and techniques to avoid STDs. Abstinence-only stresses the importance of abstaining from sexual activity until marriage and does not discuss sexuality or methods of contraception. Thus, in the recent years there has been a shift from comprehensive sex education to abstinence-only.

We can also see the emphasis on the abstinence approach in this graph.

This data illustrates a decrease in all areas of sex education in schools, which is a very significant finding in itself. However, if we look closer at the lines, we will see that the most often discussed topic in sexual education is abstinence. Meanwhile, methods of contraception and, more specifically, instructions on how to use a condom are the topics that get the least coverage. There is very little practical instruction, with currently only 35% schools teaching students how to correctly use a condom (Guttmacher).

This research lies in line with current policies considering sex education in schools. Currently, 24 states and District of Columbia mandate schools to teach some form of sexual education. A much larger number, 37 states, require that if sex education is taught, it must include abstinence. Twenty-six of them require that abstinence be emphasized as a better choice. Here, we once again see the abstinence-only approach trumping over comprehensive approach, with a larger number of states requiring to stress abstinence than the amount of states required to teach sex ed at all.

Now, we finally come upon the most interesting part of the report: the research exploring the effectiveness of sex education programs. Research suggests that strategies that “promote abstinence-only outside of marriage while withholding information about contraceptives do not stop or even delay sex” (Guttmacher). Moreover, there is evidence that suggests that abstinence-only education puts teenagers at an increased risk of STDs and unwanted pregnancy. This seems to make logical sense. If the programs are not delaying teenagers from having sex, they still engage in s exual activity but without any knowledge about birth control methods and STDs.

On the other hand, strong evidence suggests that comprehensive approaches to sex education help young people to delay sex and also to have healthy, responsible and mutually protective relationships when they do become sexually active. Many of these programs have resulted in “delayed sexual debut, reduced frequency of sex and number of sexual partners, increased condom or contraceptive use” (Guttmacher). Additionally, there hasn’t been a single study that linked providing young people with sexual and reproductive health information with increased sexual risk-taking behavior.

The research makes it quite clear: abstinence-only approach is quite ineffective in its primary goal of delaying sex until marriage. Quite the opposite, it increases the risk of negative sexual consequences, such as unwanted pregnancy and STDs because no information about those risks is provided. On the other hand, the comprehensive approach seems to carry few drawbacks, instead leading to healthier and more responsible sexual behavior. This is probably why leading health organizations support the comprehensive approach to educating young people about sex (Guttmacher). (Just to name a few: American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the Institute of Medicine, the American School Health Association and the Society for Adolescent Medicine.)

So, all this begs a question: why is there such a stark contrast between what research shows to be the better type of sexual education and what kind of sex ed is currently being taught in school?


“American Teens’ Sources of Sexual Health Education.” Guttmacher Institute. Guttmacher Institute, 27 Oct. 2016. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. <https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/facts-american-teens-sources-information-about-sex#21>.

A Quick Look at Contemporary Sex Education (or Lack Thereof)

I would like to start this blog in the same way that I first took notice of the issue of sexual education. Sure, I’ve been aware of public sex ed, having suffered through several “health classes” in high school, but I did not consider the amount of problems until I came across this video:

She sums it up pretty well, right? However, there is a lot of information presented in this video, and it’s easy to get lost in all the details. For me, there are two key points to take away from it.  First, when looking at all the maps, it is easy to see just how few states offer comprehensive sex ed education, and which important aspects of it (for example, using contraception) the schools are allowed to exclude. Second, there is a lot of variety in what each state is required and/or allowed to cover.

This variety seems strange when you consider the current movement of homogenizing public education across the states, as illustrated by Common Core and various standardized tests. So shouldn’t all kids have the same access to something that will, arguably, play a larger role in their lives than math and English grammar—something like information about sex?

There is some strong evidence that suggests that sex plays an important role in many teenagers’ lives, regardless of what their educators might want to believe about their students. As reported by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about half of high school students have been sexually active, and about 15% have had more than 4 sexual partners. That’s a lot of students having sex, and many more becoming sexually active later on in life. Are they doing so in a smart and safe way? Doesn’t seem like it.

Again, according to CDC, half of the new sexually transmitted diseases are acquired by people aged 15 to 24, only a small fraction of the sexually active population. There is simply no doubt that there are safer and healthier ways for young adults to practice sex.

Another alarming statistic is the number of teenage pregnancies in the U.S. Roughly one in four girls has had at least one pregnancy before the age of 20. Of course, not all of those pregnancies might have been unwanted, but overall it is a very high number. Unsurprisingly, the United States has the highest teen birth rate in the industrialized world. Looking at all of these numbers, it becomes clear that American teens need a more comprehensive sexual education.

When I started researching for this topic, I also recalled some of my own experiences with public sex ed, and realized that they were hardly beneficial. Back in eleventh grade, we spent several weeks on this unit in my required “health” class. The majority of the time was spent on pregnancy-conception, what happens to the woman’s body during each semester, and so on-which concluded with watching a very long and graphic video of a woman giving birth.

We also spent some time on male and female physiology, memorizing the anatomical structures of the reproductive organs. And while that knowledge might be interesting and useful to some, like those students who are planning on attending medical school, I can’t say it has ever been practical in my life so far. The topics that I actually wanted to learn about (sexually transmitted diseases and how to protect yourself from them, different types of contraceptives, safe and consensual sex) were never covered in that class.

It was because public sex ed provided me with little information that I decided to turn to the internet, where I found many great resources, such as the sexplanations channel that was featured earlier. But should we be expecting kids to seek out that information on their own? Should public schooling contribute to educating them? Their parents? How can we foster conversations about sex, even when they are uncomfortable and scary? These are the kinds of questions that this blog will tackle, exploring the contemporary sex ed system in the U.S. and seeking better ways to educate people about healthy and safe sexual relations.


“State Policies on Sex Education in Schools.” NCSL. National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 Feb. 2016. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.

“Adolescents and Young Adults.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 04 Aug. 2016. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.