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Federal Law Would Force Sex Education to Join the 21st Century

Photograph by Twenty20

Kelly from Louisiana remembers one thing about her high school sex education class. She didn't have one. Lisa from Texas remembers her health teachers telling her class that they wished they could discuss birth control, but doing so would get them fired. Zach from North Carolina remembers his sex ed teacher's attempts to terrify him about the dangers of HIV and sexually transmitted infections. That was almost 30 years ago, but in the field of sex education in the U.S., nothing has changed.

In 2014, the sex education curriculum in a Mississippi school district asked students to unwrap a piece of chocolate and pass it around, noticing how dirty it became. This was intended as a metaphor for how unclean and worthless a girl would become after having multiple sexual partners. Last year, a Texas high school was forced to notify parents about an outbreak of chlamydia despite the school's "abstinence only" sex education program. In Alabama, state laws governing sex education currently include the following language, "that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense."

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This is the state of sex education in this country. It is a patchwork of wildly different policies and attitudes, in which faith-based organizations or untrained teachers often use the classroom to promote religious or conservative views.

But this alarming situation may soon begin to improve. On April 7th, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the "Real Education for Healthy Youth Act," the first piece of federal legislation to assert that young people actually have a right to comprehensive education about sexual health. The law, also proposed by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) in the House, would provide grants for teacher training and school programs that include contraception, HIV and STI prevention, gender identity and sexual orientation, dating violence, sexual assault, and bullying, without "abstinence only" or anti-homosexual emphasis. It would actively deny funding to programs that fail to meet those standards.

If we give young people the resources, tools, and education that they need, they'll be able to take personal responsibility for their own health and rights.

Most U.S. states don't require that middle or high schools offer any type of sex education, and only 13 states require that the classes provide medically accurate information. Eight states currently mandate that sex ed courses include anti-homosexual ideology and forbid any mention of LGBT relationships or sexuality. In several states, any demonstration of how condoms or other contraceptives should be used is still illegal.

"Quite frankly, young people deserve better than that," says Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes, Director of Public Policy at Advocates for Youth. "Those programs use a fear and shame-based approach, and also are medically inaccurate. [They are] steeped in gender stereotypes, gender roles, and are not inclusive of LGBT young people. They're harmful. They're stigmatizing. And these are the programs that exist across the country and are still being funded by the federal government to this day."

So what does this this type of misinformation and prejudice actually mean for middle and high school kids? It means that the US has the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in the entire developed world. It means that in Mississippi, 76 percent of teenagers still report being sexually active before the end of high school. It means that more than half of LGBT young people continue to experience unsafe or even violent conditions in school and are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide.

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Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes has noticed a troubling scenario repeated in places like Omaha, Nebraska and Clark County, Nevada. An LGBT young person stands up at a school board meeting and asks for comprehensive and inclusive sex education. He or she explains that the lack of discussion about identity and sexuality in school leaves many young people feeling bullied, ashamed, fearful, and unaccepted, that just having a more inclusive curricula would make them feel affirmed and worth something. The next minute, an angry parent tears that student down with hate-filled vitriol, dismissing that young person's experience in the name of religion, morality and protecting children's innocence.

Diana sees the "Real Education for Healthy Youth Act" as providing crucial national guidelines for sex education with repercussions that go far beyond sex itself.

"We stand behind the notion that young people have the right to lead healthy lives," she says. "If we give young people the resources, tools, and education that they need, they'll be able to take personal responsibility for their own health and rights. We know that academic success is linked to health. The safer you feel, the healthier you are, and that health measure is linked to staying in school and feeling part of the community. All of these links from sex education to bullying and harassment, school safety, anti-discrimination measures; all of these create a school climate. We need to be making sure that school climate is the healthiest and the best place for young people to thrive."

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