Updated: Oct 26, 2020
How the public school system has failed sex-ed classes.
By Lily Patterson
Image via Refinery 29
For a large number of students, the task of receiving the “sex talk” is left primarily to schools. However, in the United States, the structure of the sex-ed curriculum is inherently flawed. Focusing on unimportant information, separating classes by gender, disregarding LGBTQIA+ students, and creating unnecessary stigma all combine to form a negative experience for students in sex-ed classes. It’s time for America to accept the fact that slapping a diagram in front of students and preaching abstinence is not a real sexual education.
Public schools are faced with the very difficult responsibility of providing students with sex-ed classes that inform them, whilst simultaneously pleasing parents. This is a very tricky balance to strike and unfortunately, the latter tends to overshadow the genuine intent of sex-ed classes. This results in school curriculums dancing around topics that desperately need to be taught in-depth.
“Sex education should be informed by evidence of what works best to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, but it should also respect young people’s right to receive honest information,” says authors Emily Bridges and Debra Houser in their article discussing current sex-ed curriculums. The intent of these classes should be to put students first; to help them understand what’s happening with their bodies and to make them aware of not only biology, but also healthy versus unhealthy relationships, what it means to be a good partner, and how to be confident with their sexuality.
However, current sex-ed classes are lacking in nearly all of these areas. Yes, it is good for students to look at diagrams of the reproductive system, and it’s true that the only surefire way to not get pregnant is to practice abstinence, but that’s not a sufficient sexual education.
In America’s current sex-ed curriculum, LGBTQIA+ students are completely disregarded. There is virtually no information for nonbinary, genderfluid, or agender students and no education is included about couples that are not between a cisgender man and woman. This completely negates the point of sex-ed classes. The Human Rights Campaign in their call to action for LGBT+ Youth inclusive sex-ed explains how “far too many LGBTQ youth are sitting in classrooms where their teachers and textbooks fail to appropriately address their identities, behaviors and experiences.”
As for what parents think, “...eighty-five percent of parents surveyed supported discussion of sexual orientation as part of sex education in high school and 78 percent supported it in middle school,” continues the Human Rights Campaign’s call to action. LGBTQIA+ students need to be reassured that they are valid, and one simple way to do that is to implement sexual education classes with conversations about sexual orientation, gender identity, and couples that aren’t strictly cisgender men and women.
Curriculums aside, the design of current sex-ed classes is also faulty. Instead of engaging every student in an open dialogue about sex-ed, schools often separate boys and girls, creating unnecessary stigma whilst simultaneously discounting nonbinary and gender-fluid students. When each gender receives different sex-ed education, the other information feels risky and controversial. This contributes to the divide between students of opposite genders. If the education were to be given to every student equally, then that disconnect could start dissolving, making students more understanding of their partners and being safer and more cognizant when in sexual situations.
Without legitimate sex-ed classes being taught in school, the stigma around sex is perpetuated. According to Planned Parenthood, students become uncomfortable with their own bodies and are essentially left to fend for themselves in the world of sexual identity and safe sex. If we as a society want to move past this stigma, we need to start now and we need to start in schools.
These topics, though they may seem uncomfortable to some parents and teachers, are crucial to normalize. When taught by a sex education professional who can engage every student in open dialogue about safe sex, reproductive biology, sexual orientation, gender identity, healthy relationships, and the importance of consent, sexual education can be incredibly beneficial. To move past the societal stigma around sexual identity and create more inclusive environments for students, we need schools to implement better sex-ed classes and we need it to happen now.
Written by writer Lily Patterson