the problem with sex education in America.

01 03 20 — Culture

We all remember our sex-ed class at school – that is, unless you blocked it out. You know the drill: the boys go to one room, the girls go to another, and we learned about each other’s changing bodies and how to put a condom on a banana. An hour later, everyone comes back looking each other up and down with a mix of shock and curiosity. But depending on which state you live in, sex education can vary wildly. A study found that only 24 states and the District of Columbia require sex-ed in schools. And five states require parental consent for students to learn about sex and HIV. But sex education obviously doesn’t cover just sex. When taught correctly, it can be a valuable tool for teaching about sexual wellness, reproductive health, gender identity and consent. 

Nobody is suggesting that we teach young children the graphic elements of sex – though if they have access to a smartphone, chances are they probably know more than you. But research has found that addressing gender and power dynamics – even at a young age – can lead to safer sex. Being able to talk honestly and openly with a sexual partner can reduce the risk of HIV and other STIs. And learning about the challenges of women, minorities and those in the LGBTQ+ community leads to a greater sensitivity in how we talk about sex. It can also reduce instances of bullying and dating violence.

America’s approach to sex education has become polarized, in part because many parents want to be the ones to teach their child about it. Which can be…awkward, to say the least. Many parents still believe in abstinence-only education. Good luck with that! So it’s not surprising that 41 percent of American 18-year-olds know very little about condoms, and 45 percent don’t know about contraception. But European countries take a different approach. The Netherlands, for instance, educates children as young as 4 about sex. They grow up being able to talk about it openly, without fear or stigma. The Dutch philosophy is to encourage respect for all sexual preferences and to help students develop skills to protect against sexual coercion, intimidation and abuse. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to sex, but there could be one to sex-ed. Standardizing age-appropriate and medically accurate sexual health education can ensure that children grow into healthy, informed and more considerate adults.