Comprehensive Sexual Education
The sexual education system over the last 40 years
If the only kind of sexual education you received was a warning to not have sex at all, you’re not alone: Abstinence education has been the main pillar of sexual education in the United States since the 1980s, when moral conservatives mandated that teachers must abide by an an “abstinence-only” sexual education model for states to receive education funding. Their efforts were largely successful, and the government has given upwards of $2 billion to abstinence-only programs. This has been so damaging to students and people, many experts argue it would have been more beneficial if schools had just set that money on fire instead.
Government funding took a big turn in 2010 when then-president Barack Obama gave funding to both the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) and the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP). Both programs focus on producing and teaching science-backed sexual education, and as time has gone on, organizations with similar missions are becoming more common (5).
Despite these changes, abstinence-only courses continue to fuel what many experts called erotophobia, or the fear of an object or person that is sexual or related to sex. To this end, I wanted to elucidate a few of the common consequences that are caused by a cultural fear of sex, as well as by the broken education system:
The effects of abstinence-only Education
One of the biggest reasons why abstinence-only sexual education is a waste is because it simply doesn’t work.
Sexual-education modules that prioritize abstinence only slightly delay a person’s first time having sexual intercourse. They’re also largely ineffective at making a person abstinent until marriage (1). People who take an abstinence vow are more likely to have anal and oral sex than others, and over 80 percent of people who take such vows have given up their vow by their 20s (4). In other words, abstinence-only sex-ed isn’t stopping sexual activity — it's just changing what someone chooses to do, and eventually leads right back to intercourse.
Contraceptives and Sexual Safety
Abstinence-only education leaves out critical information on contraception and often spreads misinformation about its effectiveness, making people less likely to use it. This leaves people more likely to have unsafe sex, which leads to repercussions such as pregnancy and STDs. In some communities, abstinence-only sex-ed has shown to increase the chances of pregnancy by as much as 60 percent (4). This has major consequences: Of the 35 most developed countries in the world, the U.S. has one of the highest pregnancy rates — and experts directly correlate that to inadequate sexual education.
Unsurprisingly, the LGBTQ+ community suffers from abstinence-only sex-ed in unique ways. Often, such sexual-education courses target LGBTQ+ people as being “abnormal,” or leaves them out of the discussion altogether (2).
This can have major impacts on everything from stigma, to someone’s ability of having safer sex. Researchers have found that some LGBTQ+ people who come from purity culture have comparable levels of PTSD to those coming out of war (6), and they experience higher rates of suicidal ideation than their peers. Supporting young people at every stage of their identities includes making space for them in sexual education courses — and telling people of all genders and sexual identities to simply “wait until marriage” doesn’t hold space for the complexity of a lived experience. This is because in the 1990s, it was common to come out in your 20s. However, now the average age has dropped to between 14 and 16 years old (4). This is problematic because during these teen years individuals are much more fragile to outside influences, which means they require enhanced support systems.
Abstinence-only education is incredibly misogynist, and typically perpetuates a myth that a man’s body and sexual functions are the norm — anything that deviates is to be considered abnormal. (A great example of this can be found in my post on arousal nonconcordance.)
Furthermore, abstinence-only education often encourages slut-shaming, as it teaches girls that they have to say no to “sex-hungry” boys. It can also try to link promiscuity with suicidal ideation. One study argued that girls with more partners were more likely to be depressed than their peers. However, that is likely a correlation, not causation, because outside influences such as taunting, slut-shaming, and isolation are not uncommon for women to experience after sexual experiences (4).
Just as abstinence-only education harms women, it does a number on men, too. Sexual conversations that center men are often discussed in what Peggy Orenstein described as “flippant or boastful terms,” focusing on performance and power (2). (By contrast, women are more likely to experience open conversations of value.) Men are therefore pressured to showcase their masculinity, and that leaves little room for questions, exploration, and individuality.
Porn as Sex Ed
People know they’re getting short-handed when it comes to sex education, and they’re turning to other resources to fill the gaps. Two of the most common resources are watching pornography and conversations with friends (2).
These avenues can have their limitations, though. While I am certainly not anti-porn, using porn as an educational tool can give people a very unrealistic view of what sex is. Often, porn fails to showcase consent, and can even support both racist and misogynistic ideas and stereotypes. According to researcher Karen Lorimer, introducing media and porn literacy courses into sex-ed could prove to be incredibly powerful. Doing so could help teach people how to navigate material they find online in a healthy manner. Ultimately, it’s clear that we need to make some changes to our current system…
What We Need
Our sexual rights are our human rights, and our education systems should reflect that.
To me, sex-ed is essentially the study of the brain and the body in a sexual wellness context. It helps teach decision-making skills, such as how to make choices that are beneficial but also safe and consensual.
“Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being related to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction, or infirmity,” the World Health Organization explains. “Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.”
In order to give sexual education justice, courses need to be taught by professional educators, not gym teachers. Students deserve to have this information delivered at the same level and with the same rigor as any other course in school. After all, this material is something people will not only be using for the rest of our lives but be using often.
The Role Model
The Dutch are great role models when it comes to their education system. Sexual health classes begin in early grade school at an age-appropriate level, and continue throughout youth. Students are taught about safe sex methods, masturbation, consent, sexuality, and so much more. As a result, they often experience better sexual experiences, less sexual assault, more sexual acceptance… the list goes on.
The point is, we know sex-affirming education methods work — and we know teaching people about sex does not make them more unsafe or less prepared. It does the complete opposite. By championing affirming and inclusive sex education, we can all help form a world where questions, consent, and curiosity are not the unexpected — they’re the norm.
- Carpenter, Laura. Virginity lost: An intimate portrait of first sexual experiences. NYU Press, 2005.
- Patterson, Susan, et al. "How men and women learn about sex: multi-generational perspectives on insufficient preparedness and prevailing gender norms in Scotland." Sex Education 20.4 (2020): 441-456.
- Lorimer, Karen, et al. "Exploring masculinities, sexual health and wellbeing across areas of high deprivation in Scotland: The depth of the challenge to improve understandings and practices." Health & place 50 (2018): 27-41.
- Orenstein, Peggy. Girls & Sex-Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. Simon and Schuster, 2016.
- Parenthood, Planned. “How Sex Education Is Funded.” Planned Parenthood Action Fund, www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/issues/sex-education/how-sex-education-funded.
- Roberts, Matthias. Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms. Fortress Press, 2020.