There’s a lot of talk about how better sex education could lead to a lower rate of sexual violence — but what if it could help solve other social problems, too? Every other year, the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Division of Adolescent and School Health conducts their Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). The YRBS examines “six categories of health-related behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death and disability among youth and adults.” Basically, they want to see what the youth are up to — and how it may be affecting their health. In 2017, the YRBS added a new section: Transgender kids and their health.
The survey found that 2 percent of high school kids are transgender and that a high percentage face violence and bullying at a higher rate than both cisgender male and female students. Specifically, 24 percent had been threatened with or injured by a weapon at school; 27 percent felt unsafe going to or from school; 35 percent were bullied at school; 23.8 percent had been raped; and 26.4 percentage had experienced dating violence. They also found that transgender students had a higher risk of suicide than cisgender students.
Dr. Sara C. Flowers, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement emailed to Bustle about the report that these health disparities between cis and trans kids “can be addressed by sex education.”
“From an early age, sex education teaches youth how to be respectful of all people, helps them understand that gender identities and sexual orientations are fluid, and fosters skills around bodily autonomy and consent,” said Dr. Flowers. “These lessons lay a foundation for all youth — cisgender and transgender — to form safe, healthy relationships and become respectful, understanding community members throughout their lives.”
Dr. Flowers isn’t wrong — comprehensive sex education does do all of those things. But her statement is missing two important things. One: Sex ed in most states doesn’t even approach comprehensive. Two: Not everyone knows was comprehensive sex ed is. So let’s take a look at both issues.
What Is Required — And Not Required — For Sex Ed In The United States?
Before we even look at what comprehensive sex ed is, let’s take a look at what’s required in the United States. There are no national guidelines for sex education, which means each locality gets to decide what their kids do — and don’t — learn in public school sex education. Here are some quick facts about sex ed in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute:
- Only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex ed, while 34 states and the District of Columbia mandate HIV education.
- Only 13 states require that the instruction about sex and HIV be medically accurate.
- Eight states require that the program must provide instruction that is appropriate for a student’s cultural background and not be biased against any race, sex or ethnicity.
- 18 states require that instruction on having sex only within marriage be provided.
- 12 states require discussion of sexual orientation, with three requiring “only negative information.”
- 28 states and the District of Columbia require the provision of information about skills for healthy sexuality, including conversations about consent, healthy decision making, and family communication.
So, as you can see, the sex education American teens are receiving varies a lot from place to place. And most of it is not comprehensive.
What Is Comprehensive Sex Education?
When many people hear the term “sex education,” their mind flashes to health class in high school. If they were lucky, there may have been an incident with a banana and a condom. If they were unlucky, they may have been told that a girl who has sex with multiple people is like a chewed up piece of gum that no one wants anymore. While the banana demo is at least marginally helpful and the chewing gym analogy is horrifying, neither represents comprehensive sex education.
So what is comprehensive sex ed? According to Advocates for Youth — one of the leading organizations for sex education advocacy in the United States — comprehensive sex ed is more than just abstinence education and STI prevention: “[Sex education] should include information about puberty and reproduction, abstinence, contraception and condoms, relationships, sexual violence prevention, body image, gender identity and sexual orientation.”
“For us, sex education isn’t just the anatomy and physiology of how to avoid pregnancy and what the birth control options are,” Brittany McBride, Advocate for Youth’s Senior Program Manager for Sexuality Education, told Bustle in an interview about new APA guidelines for masculinity. “We’re inclusive of things like: What are healthy relationships? What does it look like to communicate effectively with a partner? What is consent? How to do you gain positive consent? How do we effectively negotiate on difficult topics and practice those skills?”
Advocates for Youth’s definition of comprehensive sex education is also “inclusive of all young people regardless of their identity or orientation,” McBride says.
How Does Comprehensive Sex Ed Help Transgender Youth?
So what does all this mean for transgender and gender nonconforming youth? It means that not only are they taught about their own and other gender identities in school, but so are their cisgender peers. That discussion of the range of sexualities and genders happening with all students encourages a wider knowledge and broader acceptance of trans and gender nonconforming kids.
It also means that everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality, is taught how to more effectively communicate. In theory, that could help with things like bullying and school-based violence. And it could almost certainly reduce those disproportionate rates of dating and sexual violence that trans kids experience.
One really important thing that comprehensive sex ed teaches trans kids about? Sex. While traditional sex education ignores or outright maligns LGBTQIA+ kids, comprehensive sex ed gives space for a discussion of sexuality that is relevant to people of all identities. Trans and gender nonconforming kids who get comprehensive sex education learn about how to have sex, to talk about sex, about consent, about sexual health, and about all the other topics that sex ed should cover right along with their cisgender peers. When you consider the YRBS found that this group is almost twice as likely to not use condoms during sex and to have used drugs or alcohol before their last sexual encounter, it becomes painfully clear that these kids need to be included in the discussion.