How To Make Sex Ed Better In America

by Rachel Sanoff

Recently, John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, delivered a hilarious and biting segment effectively breaking down so many of the issues with America's approach to sex education, like the fact that "only 22 states mandate sex education, and only 13 require the information to be 'medically accurate.'" In an effort to bring even more attention to the horrifying facts behind America's disappointing and dangerous sex ed policies (and how we can make things better), I spoke with two of the women who are leading the way for more comprehensive sex education in this country: Lynn Barclay, President and CEO of the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), and Debra Hauser, President of Advocates for Youth, Vice Chair of ASHA's Board of Directors, and consultant for this very segment on John Oliver's show.

When asked if there is any issue that is more pressing than another within this current and overwhelmingly depressing state of sex education, Barclay understandably couldn't choose just one: "We are doing such a poor job on so many subjects. We are not doing comprehensive sex ed. We are not doing condom demonstrations. We are not teaching young people about consent... We are making them feel bad about their bodies... "

Hauser pointed to the prevalence of abstinence-only education as one of our worst enemies because of the overwhelming shame and fear that it attaches to healthy sexual behavior. Abstinence-only education, as exemplified in the segment on Oliver's show, teaches sexuality as a dirty and damaging trait that must be controlled. When this is how young students first learn about their natural desires, as Hauser explains, "It's very hard to be accepting of [themselves]." Once they've matured into adults and find that their sexual urges have not gone away, they will often feel ashamed and confused because of how sex has been stigmatized throughout their adolescence. As a result, their emotional and physical health will be greatly harmed, whether through internalized shame, less willingness to use condoms, and/or lack of awareness about STD testing and pregnancy prevention. Hausertells Bustle, "Young people have an unalienable right to this information. We wouldn't withhold lifesaving information about anything else."

Abstinence-only education also contributes to slut-shaming, disempowerment, and rape culture. Hauser points to a story about an opinionated princess who ends up alone in an abstinence-only curriculum known as Choosing the Best. The story is meant to teach young women not to talk too much. Seriously.

Deep inside every man is a knight in shining armor, ready to rescue a maiden and slay a dragon. When a man feels trusted, he is free to be the strong, protecting man he longs to be. Imagine a knight traveling through the countryside. He hears a princess in distress and rushes gallantly to slay the dragon. The princess calls out, “I think this noose will work better!” and throws him a rope. As she tells him how to use the noose, the knight obliges her and kills the dragon. Everyone is happy, except the knight, who doesn’t feel like a hero. He is depressed and feels unsure of himself. He would have preferred to use his own sword. The knight goes on another trip. The princess reminds him to take the noose. The knight hears another maiden in distress. He remembers how he used to feel before he met the princess; with a surge of confidence, he slays the dragon with his sword. All the townspeople rejoice, and the knight is a hero. He never returned to the princess. Instead, he lived happily ever after in the village, and eventually married the maiden—but only after making sure she knew nothing about nooses. Moral of the story: Occasional assistance may be all right, but too much will lessen a man’s confidence or even turn him away from his princess.

Abstinence-only education also straight-up victim blames, promoting that classic rape apologist mantra, "boys will be boys," which is exactly what a nation in which 1 in 3 women will be raped in their lives doesn't need. Here is a vomit-inducing excerpt from Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 46:

... Girls need to be careful with what they wear, because males are looking! The girl might be thinking fashion, while the boy is thinking sex. For this reason, girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts.

Thankfully, programs around the world demonstrate the effectiveness of comprehensive models of sex education, and activism in the states (with help from organizations like Advocates for Youth and ASHA) shows that young people are fighting for the education they deserve.

1. Why Do We Treat Sex Education Differently Than Any Other Type of Education?

John Oliver highlighted the absurd policy that allows sex education to be medically inaccurate in many parts of the nation by comparing it to a history class in which the singer Prince is taught to be a leader of the American Revolution. "Sex education," says Hauser, "is held to a completely different standard than classes like English or math," which is especially confusing, considering that far more people need to know how to prevent pregnancy in their adulthood than how to find the supplement of an angle.

When we compare the culture surrounding kids learning how to drive versus kids learning how to have healthy sexual relationships, our nation's problematic approach is further exposed. As Barclay says, if your child has not yet completed driver's ed and earned a license, "you would never hand your car keys to your kid and say, 'OK honey, go drive to the store.' You'd wait until you have confidence that they'll be safe and that other people will be safe. We don't do the same thing with sexual health." Sexual safety needs to be normalized in the same ways as driving safety, especially since reckless behavior in either can create life and death situations. Hauser, discussing comprehensive sex ed opponents who consider condom access and condom demonstrations to be dangerous, said that it's similar to claiming "we want you to be safe in the car, but we're not going to give you a seat belt." Lessons about safe sex and consent need to be just as normalized.

2. We Need To Begin Sex Education At An Earlier Age

When we look to other countries, like Britain and the Netherlands, we catch beautiful glimpses of what American sex education could be like if we considered healthy relationships and health curriculum to be part of our lifelong development. Both Hauser and Barclay stress that talking about relationships from an early age is so beneficial because it treats sexuality as normal and positive. As Barclay says, "In places like the Netherlands, they have a much better system. They talk earlier to children. They are very clear that being sexually active is a normal part of development, a normal part of life. They make sure that young people have the information they need."Hauser continues, "There are multiple things going on in other countries... Sexual development is normal and healthy. It says that we expect that as you age you will in fact have sexual activity - we are not telling you to never do it. This changes sexual health outcomes." And the fact that America's sexual outcomes include "50,000 new HIV infections, 20 million STIs, 3 million unintended pregnancies, and 1 million rapes annually" is a direct result of the insufficient way we talk about sex.The aforementioned statistic is found in the Journal of the American Medical Association's sex-positive sex education framework, advised by David Satcher, former Surgeon General. The framework focuses on healthy relationships and recognition of sexual health "as an element of overall health." Says Hauser, "When you look at all of our Surgeon Generals recently, they have been really clear that in order to create a healthy sexual nation, we have to teach young people the skills they need as they age." This doesn't mean talking about sex with little kids; it means providing age-appropriate information in K-12 as kids grow and mature. Hauser explains, "We'd teach second or third graders about relationships: what makes them a good friend? How do they have an argument with their best friend and resolve it in a way that doesn't escalate? We can teach them how to agree to disagree, which then teaches mutual respect, agency, and responsibility for what you do and how you act. These are the same characteristics you want in intimate partnerships as you get older." Ingraining these lessons into children from the very start can profoundly challenge rape culture and improve sexual and reproductive health.

3. We Need Better Sex Ed In Order To Have Better Healthcare

The oppressive and unhealthy way that our country discusses sexuality and sexual/reproductive health contributes to our overwhelmingly sex-negative culture, which is obsessed with legislating people's uteri, attacking women's health options, and defunding Planned Parenthood, effectively denying access to the numerous lifesaving health services within it. Barclay says, "If we as a nation could provide sex education in a positive, open, accepting, comprehensive, and accurate manner... we would be raising our children to not say things like, 'We need to defund Planned Parenthood,'" because sexual health, women's health, queer health, and the right to choose would be so respected within our culture.

The fact is, as Barclay points out, our healthcare struggle "all goes back to education. We are not doing a great job in k-12, college, or medical school." Yup, that's right. For the past two years, ASHA has been working to combat the fact that "medical schools only teach three hours of sexual health in the curriculum. We are trying to get a handle on which medical schools are doing what, and what we can do to encourage medical schools to do more." Shocked by the lack of sexual health training that doctors receive, I somewhat naively asked, "But what about gynecologists?" Barclay then quickly reminded me of the cold, shaming, judgmental way that many gynecologists (and doctors in general) have spoken to me and my friends, and it all made horrifying sense; learning about sexuality in a respectful, complex way isn't even considered a priority for doctors who will routinely discuss sexual health with their patients. Hopefully, sexual health will become a more prominent requirement in medical school, thanks to initiatives such as this.

4. Sex Ed Needs To Discuss Pleasure, Consent, and Healthy Relationships

Remember the sex ed scene in Mean Girls when Coach Carr warns the students not to have sex or they'll die? The "it's funny 'cause it's true" adage definitely rings true in this case. Sex ed curriculum often depends on scare tactics instead of knowledge, empowerment, and interpersonal relationships. Hauser describes much of sex ed as "disease-driven, and telling students that sex equals death. It is inculcating people with fear, but sex can be a great thing when introduced respectfully and with consent." When sex education does not only show graphic PowerPoint slides of STDs, but also includes lessons about healthy relationships, the benefits are numerous. "Folks who feel more equitable in their relationships," Hauser says, "are more likely to negotiate condom usage and get out of unhealthy relationships," which has been proven in research.

ASHA, an organization that has been in existence for 100 years, has also evolved to include a perspective of sexual health that goes beyond diseases. "For 95 years, we focused on disease," said Barclay. "We took that as far as we could, but then thought, 'There's gotta be a better way.'" That's when the organization decided to also begin focusing on interpersonal aspects of sexuality as another means of combating the numerous issues facing sexual health and access to sexual health resources. "If we could give people more comprehensive information, we'd be smarter, better able to take care of ourselves, our partners, and our community. The fact that we, as a nation, still refuse to do that is why Planned Parenthood is trying to be taken down brick by brick." ASHA's initiatives focus on "integrating the concept of pleasure" into sexual health education - another tenet of the Journal of the American Medical Association's sex-positive sex ed framework. "We, as a nation, are uncomfortable with women having pleasure," Barclay continued. "When we find pleasure, we have better quality relationships, but it's a subject we're afraid to talk about." The fact that sexuality is described as frightening instead of as an enjoyable activity between responsible, consenting adults denies young people the chance to learn how to take care of themselves and how to communicate their comfort or discomfort regarding various acts. This is so upsetting because, as Hauser explains, normalizing sexual behavior results in people taking responsibility for their actions; sexuality is portrayed as within their control, instead of as an out-of-control secret or an act that doesn't require consent and communication.

5. We Have To Normalize Condom Usage

"The research is incredibly clear," says Hauser. Condom access in schools "does not increase sexual activity and does not hasten the onset of sexual activity." Condom usage merely increases among already-sexually active teens - which is a wonderful thing. "It is the most frustrating myth," Hauser explains, "that people think the provision of information makes kids sexually active. When societies don't turn information into a forbidden fruit, then we are much more likely to have better sexual health outcomes... We must normalize condom use among sexually active young people." This is incredibly difficult to do when many schools ban condom demonstrations, or have only just started allowing them. In some counties where condom demonstrations are allowed, Hauser explains, teachers are ordered to cover the contraceptive cart with a towel or cloth while transporting the condoms down hallways. What happens when we shroud condoms in shame and secrecy? Hauser went on to reference depressing studies that reveal many college-aged students don't know how to use condoms correctly.

One of ASHA's initiatives to promote condom normalization was the You Be The Influence campaign, which encouraged women to buy, carry, and demand condoms when engaging in heterosexual intercourse. By encouraging women to purchase their own condoms and demand their use, ASHA empowers women to take control of their own sexual encounters and their own health.

6. Sex Ed Must Be LGBT-Inclusive

Sexual education will not be comprehensive if it is not LGBT-inclusive. Curriculum that doesn't incorporate the full gender and sexuality spectrum promotes heteronormativity and transphobia. Predictably, it has devastating effects. LGB teenagers are more likely to experience unplanned pregnancies, and they are 91 percent more likely to experience bullying and abuse throughout their entire school lives, K-12. Sex education teachers in Mississippi told their classes that homosexual acts were illegal just last year. LGBT youth also have significantly higher suicide rates and experience violent hate crimes far more frequently. LGBT-inclusive sex education can help combat these horrific statistics and improve sexual health, mental health, and justice overall.

Some positive policy changes that Hauser has seen include the US Department of Education's recent announcement that transgender youth are protected under Title IX, "which gives schools the ability to push for change" using the anti-discrimination policy. Advocates for Youth have also been contacted by numerous young people requesting resources for LGBT-inclusive sex education in their lacking cities and towns. It is extremely exciting to see young people take action to control their education, though there is still a long battle ahead. As Hauser explains, LGBT inclusion only within sex education is not enough: "We also need social studies lessons that raise up historical folks who happened to be [LGBT]." Hopefully, with a San Francisco teacher's introduction of what is likely the first LGBT studies high school course, we will see more of these kinds of classes nationwide. Schools also need student organizations that support and empower queer students.

7. We Need To Talk About Sexual Health, Chronic Disorders, and Disability

While recent developments like a Michigan school district's introduction of a special education sex ed course demonstrate that more sex ed programs are beginning to incorporate disability justice into the movement, there is still a lot of work left to be done around disability. as well as the issue of sexuality, illness, and chronic conditions. ASHA recently held a conference regarding the intersection between sexuality and chronic diseases. Barclay said the conference "was a first step to find out if other organizations are worried about this" and ASHA was "blown away" by the positive responses from other support and research groups. Attendees of the conference included cancer organizations, menopause organizations, mental health organizations, and obesity organizations. Just last month, a study revealed that obese teenage girls were less likely to use birth control, which researchers attribute to embarrassment and insecurity regarding their sexuality. Now that ASHA has made contact with so many groups who want to improve understanding of sexuality and chronic illness, Barclay says the next step is to continue collaborating with one another to bring more information to more people.

Things Are Changing (Slowly)

Both Barclay and Hauser expressed that while we still clearly have a long way to go, we are seeing strides in sex education that they never imagined would happen during their careers. We should celebrate these victories while also remaining vigilant for the countless young people harmed by the kinds of programs highlighted in John Oliver's segment. We are seeing effective sex education come out of unexpected places, like the Unitarian Universalist Association's "Our Whole Lives" curriculum, which Hauser describes as beautiful: "It talks about relationships and the power of sexuality in a really positive, healthy way, which helps them develop a sense that this is in their control." If these kinds of lessons are happening in a church, why can't they happen in a public school? Thankfully, Advocates for Youth's mission is to provide avenues for young people who want to change the kinds of sex ed available to them. Hauser explains that all of Advocates for Youth's work "is done in a partnership with young people themselves. It is young people who are making these changes."Advocates for Youth has successfully aided students in Broward County, Florida who spoke against the lack of comprehensive sex education in their schools. Cities like Oakland and Chicago have good sex ed policies, but don't have the resources to bring them to life. Advocates for Youth works to write curriculum that will help these kinds of cities gain access to more resources.Barclay says, "Now people are finally talking about issues in sex education correctly." People are newly able to comprehend the broadness of sexual health; she recalls people responding to demands for changes in sex ed with statements such as, "But we're already teaching it," as recently as 2008. We are on the right path, but it's going to be a difficult road. Said Barclay, "When we finally give in and help our young people and all people be healthy, we, as a nation, will be better off. We will get there, but how long will it take?"

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