May is "Sex Ed For All" Month: Here's Why It Matters
May is Sex Ed For All Month, and we think that's something worth talking about! The whole mission of The Intimacy Advisor is to provide enlightening facts and information about romance & intimacy, and tools for self and partnered pleasure - adult sexual education, if you will - but sex ed needs to start long before that, and all too often doesn't.
Sex Ed for All Month is an awareness month to bring light to a problem that's been sweeping our nation for years, and is still growing. Depending on where young people live and go to school, they may not be getting sufficient, scientifically sound, or ANY sexual education, potentially setting them up for a whole host of confusion and difficult conversations down the road.
Once dubbed "Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month", May was rebranded into Sex Ed for All Month in 2019 after lengthy efforts by the Sex Education Collaborative (made up of the organizations listed at the end of this post) to change the name. They correctly argued that the moniker Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month did more harm than good, placing the onus of responsibility for an unplanned pregnancy completely on the female, and creating a stronger stigma and deep feelings of shame around becoming a parent at a young age. Sex Ed for All Month aims to provide just that - developmentally appropriate, factual science & medical based sexual education for all students in all schools, so all young people are empowered to make the sexual choices that are right for them.
What's the problem?:
Let's start with some facts and figures that paint a pretty clear picture of the issue. As of May 2021:
- Only 7 states mandate sexual education which includes HIV/STI education & comprehensive healthy relationship content.
- 30 states mandate some sort of sex education, but 22 of those mandate that abstinence is the primary focus and do not require that contraception is covered.
- 34 states require that abstinence is "stressed" in sexual education, and 19 states actively promote heterosexual marriage as being the only safe and natural setting sex should occur within. "Abstinence Only" sex ed has been proven ineffective numerous times, and some of the states that mandate it have the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country.
- 37 states require STI/HIV education in sex ed, but many of these still stress abstinence as being the best means for prevention.
- 22 states mandate some healthy relationship instruction.
- Only 9 states require that consent is taught as part of their sexual education curriculum.
- 5 states have no mandates in place whatsoever about sex ed being taught, leaving it completely at the whim of individual schools and districts; it frequently doesn't exist at all.
- (See the maps here for these and more disturbing numbers)
The bottom line is this: many students are not receiving enough accurate sexual education. Young people want and need greater access to comprehensive sexual education and sexual health services, but there are still many massive systemic inequalities and barriers to getting this education and care.
Why does it matter?:
Youth who don't receive adequate sexual education in schools and open & honest support and information at home have a chance of becoming adults with very little real-world knowledge about sex, sexual health, sexuality, and even their own bodies, which can cause numerous problems in their adult lives.
In a study cited by the eye-opening Time article "Why Schools Can't Teach Sex Ed", it was found that nearly 80% of sexually active teens ages 15-17 had NO formal sexual education before having sex for the first time. Whether we like it or not, teens have been having sex for ages, and will continue to; it only makes sense to prepare them for it correctly through comprehensive sexual education in their formal education. Students who don't have a good foundational knowledge about sex and sexual health are more likely to make more poor choices in their teenage years or adulthood regarding sex, relationships, pregnancy, or STIs.
If teens are not taught about healthy relationships, they are more likely to become entangled in abusive relationships. Not knowing what real love is supposed to look like (no, not everyone has an example of it at home) and not knowing how to spot the red flags of a harmful relationship can cause those relationships to drag on longer than they should, causing the abused partner to have a harder time getting out and getting help. Students who were not taught about consent as they began exploring sexual activity may be more likely to cause harm to someone through a non-consensual sex act. Furthermore, teens and pre-teens taught sex ed through an "abstinence only" perspective are more likely to experience feelings of guilt or shame around sex, causing them to not seek information about or the necessary tools for contraception or STI prevention, and it can cause relationship problems down the road.
Many adults were up in arms recently because an animated movie showed an animated pre-teen getting her period for the first time, and the mom stepping in with pads, Midol, and a heating pad to save the day. Some of the outrage was because parents were watching the movie with their younger children and basically didn't want to explain it to their kids. Kids who are too young to understand won't have even caught the reference to ask about it, and kids who are old enough to catch it and question it are old enough to need it explained to them properly, girls and boys alike. If boycotting a movie or the whole movie company because it depicts puberty isn't a sign of folks raised with negative attitudes around sex and sexual heath and wellness education, I don't know what is.
How do we fix it?:
The problem is so widespread, it's going to take a lot more than a band-aid to fix this deep wound in our education system. Having an awareness month such as Sex Ed for All Month is a good start, but those in power need to do more. Sweeping federal legislation requiring sexual education for all students in all schools would be good place to start, and various bills have been introduced to meet this end for years, but they've unfortunately made little headway due in large part to certain recent administration.
It is more important now than ever before, as our supreme court moves to further strip women of their reproductive rights, that all young people have access to complete and holistic sexual education. Sex Ed needs to be developmentally appropriate and meet kids where they are at, addressing them as the whole people they are, with the information they need to serve them well as they grow. And kids and teens are almost always wiser and more knowledgeable than we give them credit for; providing them anything less than a solid sex ed background is doing them a disservice. Gone are the days where 4th or 5th graders should be seated in classrooms separated by boys and girls and watch videos about their changing bodies, how pads and tampons work, and that they should probably start wearing deodorant if they haven't already. All young people need to understand the intricacies of all other people's bodies as well as their own, and all young teens must be made fully aware of the potential consequences of sex, and how they can make smart decisions about their own sexual and reproductive health. Until this change can take place broadly in schools, it needs to start at home.
What You Can Do To Make a Difference:
- Start small and at home: If you have children, you are your child's first sex ed teacher. It is vital to teach children honestly and accurately about their bodies even when they are small. Penis, vagina, and vulva aren't dirty words; children who are taught the proper names for their body parts are better prepared to prevent sexual abuse or report it if it does occur. As children get older, preparing them for puberty and shifting to having "the talk" as they approach sexual readiness become your primary responsibilities. The more comfortable they are having these talks with you, the more open they will be with you, so you can guide them in their choices as they grow. You can read more about being a "parent teacher" for all different ages of children here.
- Don't over-shelter your child from media: In the era of TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, and easily accessible adult content all over the internet, there are certainly plenty of scary and real threats to your child's safety and innocence every day...probably more than ever before. That being said, being overprotective about what your kids are exposed to in the media isn't the answer. Every parent has a different moral compass and varying ideals they raise their children by, but trying to shield them from everything that may possibly corrupt their precious little mind can backfire...and they'll find another (potentially less safe place) to be exposed to the same content. It's perfectly okay to let your older kids watch after school television and movies that show pre-teen & teen characters dealing with real-life issues that real pre-teens & teens deal with every day. Prescreen things if you must, but try and remember that they'll understand most of what they see, and if they don't understand something, they'll ask you about it, which is a good way to start an important dialogue.
- Stay open-minded & available: If you have pre-teen or teenage children, make sure they feel comfortable coming to you with any questions or concerns they may have, even about highly personal subjects. Tell them you will always do your best to answer or assist without judgement, and make sure you follow through on that promise. If you don't feel like you have the best answers or advice for their specific concerns, you can empower them to do their own research or look things up with them. Scarleteen.com (subtitled Sex Ed for the Real World) is a great resource full of questions from real teenagers and scientifically- and medically-based answers written at a well-informed but age appropriate level. Teens and adolescents are almost always wiser than we give them credit for and have been exposed to or are curious about more things than we may have been at their age, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Just help them get the answers they need to make safe and smart decisions, and don't dumb stuff down for them...they'll know.
- Get involved in your child's school board and/or local & state government: If possible, run for office on your child's school board, or at least attend open meetings whenever you can. If any legislation is on the table about sex ed, make your voice heard as you bring up some of the resources cited in this post about why comprehensive sexual education is so vital for all students. if it isn't on the table and needs to be, put it there! Do anything you can to encourage your schools to adopt a comprehensive, scientifically- and medically-accurate sexual education program district-wide. Call on your local or state elected officials and tell them to invest in comprehensive sexuality education for all children in all schools. Remind them this important information is not only necessary to teach to students, but that it is their right to learn it.
- Advocate for your own kid: If you can't get the school system or government to budge on their stance about offering comprehensive sexual education, at least do whatever you can to make sure your child receives this very important curriculum regardless. Look for classes through local community education or community college enrichment programs, after-school or outreach programs that may be available, interactive online courses, or even dual enrollment options at another nearby public high school (especially if your child goes to a private or religious school). Parents who have the knowledge base to do so may prefer to offer their own homeschool style sex ed for their child (you can find some resources to help with this here and more websites where teens can explore and learn more on their own here). This type of sex ed, however, can obviously be problematically biased, teaching only what that individual parent thinks their child needs to know, potentially leaving huge gaps of vital information. It may also create more awkward moments than some parents and kids bargain for. For a subject like sexual education, it may be better for your student to have a neutral third party like a teacher or tutor to go to with the tough questions.
- Support organizations that support Sex Ed for All: One of the biggest hurdles to some schools being able to offer proper sex ed is simply that they don't have the resources...or more accurately, they don't allocate the resources properly. Some organizations working tirelessly on legislation changes that would build up sex ed in all schools and provide inclusive access to sexual health services are SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change, Planned Parenthood, Healthy Teen Network, and Power to Decide.