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.

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