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."
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.
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."