When Healing to Action, a survivor-led organization working to end gender-based violence in Chicago, teamed up with the Chicago Teachers Union to assess the city’s implementation of a 2013 mandate to teach sexual education in public schools, they uncovered vast disparities. Seventy percent of Windy City K-12 youth were not receiving the full sequence of intended instruction, missing critical lessons on subjects as diverse as anatomy, sexual desire and expression, gender identity, pregnancy, sexual abuse, personal hygiene, sexually transmitted diseases, domestic and dating violence, contraception and abortion.
In determining what went wrong, the researchers discovered that Chicago’s mandate did not include enough funding to ensure implementation. “The Chicago Public School board and the Office of Student Health and Wellness are responsible for making sure that the curriculum is taught, but in practice, there is almost no oversight,” Karla Altmayer, co-founder and co-director of Healing to Action, told Truthout. This, she says, has meant that better-funded schools on the city’s north side are more likely to comply with the sex-ed guidelines than those on the south and west sides, areas largely populated by lower-income people of color.
What’s more, Altmayer says, the schools are providing scant support to caregivers to enable them to talk to their kids about sexual health issues, leaving parents and guardians on their own to navigate these conversations.
“Anti-violence groups like Healing to Action are working to fill the gaps, but the schools need to do a lot more,” Altmayer said.
Many are trying, and while a small number of localities across the U.S. have made headway in integrating sexual health into the broader school curriculum, these school districts — along with a smattering of individual schools in Chicago and beyond — are few and far between, creating an uneven instructional patchwork for the nation’s nearly 51 million public school students.
“School administrators continue to treat sex ed as less important than other subjects. But if we want to end violence, particularly gender-based violence, we need to invest in prevention. This message has been ignored,” Altmayer said. “Yes, because of COVID we have to shift how we do it, but remote classes should not avoid sex education. It should be an ‘and,’ not an ‘or’ when it comes to subject matter.”
Lack of a Federal Mandate
Christine Soyong Harley, CEO and president of SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change, told Truthout that much of the problem rests with the fact that the U.S. Department of Education has no authority over sexual health education. This, coupled with the idea that local jurisdictions should determine what students learn, is at the crux of the problem. But another big issue, she says, is attitudinal: “The fact is, for the majority of our history as a country, we’ve been grappling over what we should teach young people about sex,” Harley told Truthout. “Abstinence has been a priority, and there’s been an avoidance of anything that moves beyond pregnancy and illness prevention.” The result? There is tremendous variation in what students learn or don’t learn.
For example, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, schools in Tennessee are only required to offer “family life education” — a perfunctory curriculum that teaches little more than abstinence-until-heterosexual-marriage — when “the teen pregnancy rate in any county exceeds 19.5 pregnancies per 1000 females aged 11 through 18.” In addition, parents or guardians must be notified in advance of instruction, be allowed to examine course materials and be permitted to withdraw their children from the class. Furthermore, the school system is barred from teaching “gateway sexual activity,” a term that is never defined.
Conversely, Washington State explicitly requires schools to offer instruction that is “scientifically accurate, age-appropriate, appropriate for students regardless of race, disability status, or sexual orientation, and includes information about abstinence and other methods of preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” Moreover, by the 2022-23 academic year, every public school in the state will be expected to offer comprehensive sex ed beginning in kindergarten with the teaching of social skills such as managing feelings and co-existing with others, and ending in high school with in-depth lessons on consent, interpersonal communications and the nuts-and-bolts of sexual intimacy, including STI and pregnancy prevention.
Although this sounds good on paper, Harley cautions that even in places with clearly articulated state-based criteria, these criteria are generally not treated as mandates. “All too often, there is no funding, so schools that are under-resourced are unable to offer programs with paid sex educators,” she said. “More often than not, a gym teacher is tasked with providing sex ed classes. Some schools have health teachers who take this on, but many do not and rely on the gym teacher to show videos.”
Financial pressures have also led cash-strapped schools to open their doors to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, groups that offer biased, Christian-centric “educational” programming. “These centers call and offer to come into schools for free, typically hiding their agenda until they arrive,” Harley said. “They then hold assemblies where they tell young girls that they are as valuable as a cup of spit if they have premarital sex.”
Harley says the lack of a funded federal mandate for comprehensive sex education makes it really difficult for under-resourced schools to do their job, adding that since 1981, the only federal money available to public schools for sex education has been earmarked for promotion of abstinence-until-marriage and STI and pregnancy prevention.
But the dollars have flowed. Over the past four decades, spending on abstinence-only education — now called sexual risk avoidance, or SRA — has topped $4 billion. By all measures, the program has been a colossal failure, with approximately 615,000 unintended teen pregnancies a year, and almost half of the more than 19 million STIs diagnosed each year occurring among 15- to 24-year-olds.
Meanwhile, the topics students want to discuss — from gender expression to gender identity, from different ways to express sexual feelings to ways to ask for and give consent — are largely ignored unless a student is lucky enough to find a willing instructor.
The Luck of the Draw
Jaiden Blancaflor, a high school senior from Orange County, California, and a member of the GLSEN (formerly the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) National Student Council, is one of the lucky ones. “I got good sex ed in my health class in 9th grade, but my class was atypical. My teacher invited speakers in and tried to be inclusive,” Blancaflor told Truthout.
The instructor could not give students condoms, but she let Blancaflor’s class know where to get them and gave resources to LGBTIA+ students, talked about birth control, STD testing, “and did a lot of myth-busting about STDs, which was important because our textbook was 15 years old and outdated,” Blancaflor says. “My teacher also made clear that STDs can be transmitted in many ways beyond hetero intercourse. Other kids I know got classes where the only bad outcome of teen sex they heard about was unintended pregnancy. That kind of heteronormativity is a huge barrier for a lot of kids.”
Emily Ladau, a disability rights activist, writer and editor, was not as lucky as Blancaflor. Ladau uses a wheelchair and says that the sex ed she received followed a “one-size-fits-all script” that did not feel relevant to her. She also felt like she could not ask questions or even ask people not to touch her wheelchair without her permission. “Sex ed classes that recognize that we are all different from each other would be a great start,” she says. “The disabled community is not monolithic and we have all kinds of experiences and desires and exist across the full spectrum of sexualities.”
Noor Pervez, community engagement coordinator at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, agrees. “Disabled kids need what everyone else needs. We need to know about our body parts, what consent is, what to do if consent is violated and what a healthy relationship looks like,” Pervez told Truthout. “It’s high time for disabled and non-disabled communities to recognize that people with different kinds of bodies, non-verbal people and people with different kinds of brains also need to learn how to navigate sexuality.”
Pervez adds that in re-envisioning sex ed, it is important to include people with intellectual or developmental disabilities [IDD], folks who are typically treated as perpetual children. “People with IDD frequently face stigma, especially around the idea of being full sexual beings,” Pervez said. “If disability was treated as a fact of life, with a discussion of options — for example, if you can’t give consent verbally, you can do it with hand signs or a device. If your body or brain can’t do this or that, here are other approaches — it expands the idea of bodily autonomy. You get to decide what happens to your body on a given day and you get to decide who gets to see or touch you.”
These ideas, say advocates, are exactly what inclusive, comprehensive sex education is meant to promote — and they’ve created the National Sex Education Standards as a prototype for teaching them. Developed by SIECUS, Advocates for Youth and Answer, a Rutgers University-based sex education advocacy group, the Standards present sexual desire as a normal, natural, healthy part of human nature.
Originally developed in 1995, the Standards were subsequently updated to include greater focus on consent, healthy relationships, dating violence, gender identity, and ways to safely use social media. The curricula also highlight sexual harassment alongside concrete data on anatomy, reproduction, safer sex, contraception, abortion and transmission and treatment of STDs. In addition, drug and alcohol use, as well as smoking and vaping, are covered.
But while the Standards have been widely lauded by educators, activists and advocates, they are not widely used by public schools.
“We typically expect pushback from families opposed to sex education, but in many places, that’s not the case. Opposition often comes from school administrators, school board leaders and policymakers,” Becca Mui, education manager at GLSEN, told Truthout. “There is definitely also pushback from religious and conservative communities who fear that comprehensive sex ed will encourage students to engage in sexual acts or discuss topics they are not ready for. In reality, comprehensive, inclusive sex ed addresses all bodies in developmentally appropriate ways.”
Most recently, Washington State’s sex ed mandate elicited Catholic opposition that charged that it “breaks down the natural modesty between boys and girls,” and does not focus on “reducing fornication” or the “spiritual needs of children.” Nonetheless, Mui stresses that despite conservative resistance, the majority of U.S. residents — 86.3 percent in 2017 — support in-school sex ed.
Students are also pushing for it. “This generation of students is very vocal about who they are and what they need, particularly in regard to mental and sexual health issues,” Mui says.
“A lot of teens do not have their own rooms or even a safe space with privacy to do research or search for information,” Blancaflor says. “School is a haven for many kids, the place they can ask questions and get access to unbiased resources.”
Therapist and sexuality educator Aida Manduley, a member of the Women of Color Sexual Health Network, has reached the same conclusion. “From what I’ve seen, this generation is less willing to take shit. Part of it is that they’re seeing environmental collapse. We are not just in a pandemic; we are in a climate emergency. A lot of Generation Z recognizes that there is not a lot of time,” Manduley told Truthout. “They know they deserve better and are going to fight for it. They talk about land and body sovereignty as a continuum and are making the necessary connections to move us forward.”