As battles rage over sex education in many states, students returning to school are finding themselves in a culture war zone.
In Florida, the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law restricts reproductive health education in 6th through 12th grade and bars teachings about gender identity and sexual orientation in elementary schools. Georgia is debating a similar law. Ohio passed a law against addressing gender identity issues without parental consent. So far this year, 17 states have enacted more than 30 laws aimed at restricting LGBTQ+-related education, all going into effect this school year, except those blocked in court. As some parents in other states protest LGBTQ+-related materials and teaching in schools, more such laws may climb state policy agendas.
This is nothing new. Campaigns against gender and sexuality in schools have occurred across the U.S. for many years, much of it funded by groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. These attacks pose a major threat to public health. Young people need to be equipped with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values needed to holistically understand sexuality as a part of their emotional and social development.
Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), a rights-based approach to sex education, is designed to accomplish just that. It goes beyond the biological facts and embraces all aspects of sexuality to encourage empathy and an appreciation of sexual diversity, as well as respect for gender equity, rights and social justice.
Access to CSE is a critical component of sexual and reproductive health care. CSE programs are proven to be effective at safeguarding adolescent health and well-being. They reduce unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, and lead to positive sexual health and behavior outcomes, such as increased condom use, lower rates of domestic violence, and a better understanding of HIV and STIs. CSE fills critical gaps in education, for example on menstrual health and hygiene. It’s also important for supporting social-emotional learning, teaching positive communication and reinforcing healthy relationships.
Students have a right to a comprehensive education, including comprehensive sexuality education. CSE has gained global recognition and support, including as part of implementation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. There are also growing calls to action for CSE and LGTBQ+-representative and inclusive teaching in the U.S. Nationwide polls even show increasing support from middle school and high school parents for school-based curriculum on a variety of sexual health topics.
But despite this, and despite that a majority of 18-year-olds in the U.S. have already engaged in sexual intercourse, there is no federal mandate for CSE. Sexual education is largely decided by states and local policymakers, creating an extremely varied and inconsistent set of laws and standards for sex education. Some states don’t require schools to offer it at all, while 39 states and the District of Columbia do. Of those, fewer than half require it to be medically accurate. Only seven states require LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education; 11 states have banned it.
Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are widely taught in some schools. Federal funding streams dedicated to them still exist, despite relatively little public support for them and plenty of evidence they’re ineffective. One government-funded analysis found that abstinence-only education fails to reduce incidence of adolescent pregnancy, HIV or other STIs, and that states that emphasize it have higher incidence of adolescent pregnancies and births.
Abstinence-only programs encourage judgmental attitudes and instill guilt and shame around sex. They are not inclusive of all gender identities and lifestyles, contributing to a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students that can increase their risk of HIV infection, substance abuse, eating disorders and suicide. Including LGBTQ+ youth in sex education programs is vital.
Last year, 40 bills advancing positive or progressive sex education were introduced; just one was passed. At the same time, hundreds of state bills were introduced to limit school instruction on sex education and gender identity — even menstruation.
This is a concerning trend. Without mandating a comprehensive curriculum around sexuality education in schools, we are robbing our youth and our communities of healthy development. Congress and the Biden-Harris administration must make access to CSE a priority.
Bills in Congress such as the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act would ensure federal funding for CSE programs and eliminate funding for abstinence-only programs. Those funds should be redirected to evidence-based sexual education programs such as the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and Personal Responsibility Education Program, in order to assure more robust protections of sexual and reproductive health and rights for young people. Prioritizing federal funding for states that mandate CSE elements in their curricula can also encourage wider adoption of CSE across the country.
Parents, educators and policymakers must stand up for the health, well-being, development and rights of young people. We must come together to advocate for sex education that supports young people to navigate a complex world while fostering inclusivity and respect. America’s youth is counting on it.
Maniza Habib is research associate at the Population Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that supports reproductive health and rights.
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