Many years ago, there had been debate on whether schools should teach students sex education. This has thankfully changed due to some simple statistics. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the US has “one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world—almost twice as high as those of England, Wales, and Canada, and eight times as high as those of the Netherlands and Japan.” In addition, adolescents and young adults between 15–24 account for approximately 60% of incidents of sexually transmitted infections globally, according to the World Health Organization. Here we have a fascinating article on how sex education is taught in different countries which helps explain some of this difference.
The statistics above, and other numerous studies in the same category, helped garner sex education support from relevant quarters in recent years. Parents, educators, and government bodies agree that sex education should be taught in schools. In a recent poll on sex education by Planned Parenthood, 93 percent of parents supported having sex education taught in middle school, and 96 percent of parents supported having sex education taught in high school. Currently, 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, and 34 states mandate HIV education. This consensus and widespread implementation of sex education has cut down on the number of teenagers who have their first sex without some form of sexual education.
As in all things, parents should not feel that they can pass over sex education fully to the school. As professionals and with experience, they can offer your child a great tool. However, talking about it openly and at regular intervals is important. Your child is an individual and may be experiencing things that do not fit with the timeline of the school curriculum. They may also have views different from you. It can take strength to have these conversations.
What Does Your Child Learn from Sex Education in School?
Sex education varies in composition, method of teaching, and involvement across the United States. Some states allow parental involvement and choice of participation. Parents get to choose whether they want their children to receive sexual education. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, twenty-five states and the District of Columbia require school districts to notify parents that there’s a provision for sexual or HIV education. Five states require parental consent before a child can receive instruction, and thirty-six states and the District of Columbia allow parents to opt out on behalf of their children.
So whatever the composition of sex education in your state, chances are you can participate as a parent or opt out for your child if anything makes you uncomfortable. Generally, there are two basic types of sex education classes: Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage and Comprehensive Sexuality Education.
As the name implies, abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage aims to get teenagers to abstain from all kinds of sexual activity. How abstinence is taught differs across states. Some schools emphasize the failure rate of contraceptives as a deterrent. Others choose not to talk about contraception at all. But the ultimate goal is to encourage complete abstinence from sex. This tends to be in religious states and countries.
On the other hand, Comprehensive Sexuality Education teaches children that sex is a normal part of life. It begins early in childhood and covers sexual expression, masturbation, safe sex, culture, body image, contraceptives, and STIs. The ultimate goal of Comprehensive Sexuality Education is to teach children safe sex. Of course, it touches on abstinence too, but the focus is on equipping teens with procedures to avoid STIs, HIV, and pregnancy. We look later at which is the most effective, however, as a parent it is essential that you also talk to your child about sex. We offer you some advice here. I personally firmly believe in a comprehensive method and the evidence below affirms this.
Which is the Best Form of Sex Education?
As previously mentioned, sex education in public schools involves Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage and Comprehensive Sexuality Education. Perspectives differ on the effectiveness of both forms of sex education depending on the parent you ask. But many experts seem to agree that educating teenagers about sex yields better results.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control examined scientific evaluations from 66 comprehensive sex education programs and 23 abstinence-until-marriage programs. The study found no conclusive evidence that abstinence-until-marriage programs helped teenagers delay sexual intercourse or other sex-related behaviors. In contrast, the study found that comprehensive sex education positively affected the behavior of teenagers. Teenagers reduced the number of people they had sex with, the number of times they had sex. They used condoms and contraceptives more, reducing the likelihood of pregnancy or transmitting STIs.
Overall, it’s not hard to see why comprehensive sex education is more effective than abstinence. In the context of American sex education, one form teaches children to stay away and the other teaches children how to navigate sex when the time comes. “Keeping information about sex from young people teaches them that their bodies and sex are shameful,” Erica Smith, a sexuality educator who provides public and private sexuality education. “Giving them accurate and age-appropriate information better prepares them for a lifetime of mutually pleasurable and safe relationships.”
What Does Sex Education Cover Grade By Grade?
Sex education widens in scope according to grade level. Educators are sensitive to children’s development. Early on, children only receive the basics of sex education, building the groundwork for lessons broader in scope. Below is grade-by-grade content on sex education in school.
- Elementary School. As you might expect, the scope of sex education in schools differs from state to state. From kindergarten to fourth grade, schools teach thirty hours of family life and health education in Delaware. Children in kindergarten receive self-esteem lessons, and by sixth grade, they get lessons on healthy relationships. Whereas in Maine, children from kindergarten to grade 12 receive lessons in human development and sexuality in age-appropriate ways.
- Middle School. Students in Montana learn about the reproductive system in 8th grade and HIV in 4th grade. While North Carolina teaches contraceptives and sexually transmitted infections between 7th and 9th grades. Elsewhere in New Jersey, children learn tolerance and acceptance of same-sex relationships. However, the law requires that schools in New Jersey teach abstinence as the safest form of birth control.
- High School. Reproduction, sexuality, human development, prevention of HIV and other STIs are all part of the high school curriculum under the comprehensive sex education in Vermont. While in California, students must receive education about HIV and AIDS at least once in high school. The same goes for students in West Virginia from 6th to 12th grade. Also, Delaware requires students to take half credit in sex education.
Final Thoughts on Sex Education in School
While most schools do their best to offer comprehensive health education, they don’t always cover everything. As a parent, you still have a crucial role to play. “Few schools offer comprehensive, fact-based programs, which is the gold standard,” says Jill Whitney, a licensed marriage and family therapist whose work focuses on intimacy and sexuality. “Most schools offer only limited programs on puberty, or pregnancy prevention, which are better than nothing but tend to leave out key elements like sexual decision-making, healthy relationships, and pleasure. Do some research and talk with teachers at open houses. You want to know what your child will be taught so you can fill in any gaps.”