The Case for Comprehensive Sex Education in the United States

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Essay describing why the US needs comprehensive sex education

Submitted: August 27, 2015

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Submitted: August 27, 2015



Across the United States, middle schools far and wide are teeming with all kinds of myths, one of the classics being that kissing with your bathing suit on could get you pregnant. Mountain Dew lowers sperm count. Two condoms are better than one. Imagine that as time goes by, these myths are never dispelled. You hear a brief talk that involves some words that are only ever whispered, and when said aloud everyone blushes and giggles. You’re told not to have sex, but you’ve still never really been told what it actually is. This is the case for almost one-fourth of teenagers in the US (Livni, Ephrat. "Study: Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Up."). Comprehensive sex education is vital to a teenager’s overall quality of life because it lowers the chance of unplanned pregnancy, decreases likelihood of STI contraction, increases a sense of bodily integrity, and builds a foundation for healthy relationships.

Comprehensive sex education is defined as a rights-based, gender-sensitive, citizen-oriented and sex-positive program that is introduced into middle or high school curriculums covering a broad range of topics, including but not limited to: male and female anatomy, the process of reproduction, methods of contraception and birth control, sexually transmitted diseases and methods of prevention, personal health awareness, LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual) literacy, sexual and domestic violence, consent, abstinence, and risks associated with sex (International Planned Parenthood Foundation, “From evidence to action”). It does not attempt to replace traditional family or cultural views on sex, but provides teens with the information to develop their own views and identify resources appropriate for their needs (International Planned Parenthood Foundation, “From evidence to action”).

In all of the industrialized nations, the United States still maintains the highest rate of teen pregnancy, and teenagers of the US are still 25% more likely to become pregnant than the second-highest ranking country, Russia (Kearney, MS. “Why is the teen birth rate in the United States so high and why does it matter?”). Phenomenally, the United States currently has the lowest teen pregnancy rate ever seen by the Centers for Disease Control since they began tracking it in 1940 (Beadle, Amanda. “TeenPregnancies Highest In States With Abstinence-Only Policies”). In 2010, there was a 9% decrease in teen pregnancy rates, and then within the next two years, another 10% decrease was achieved (Boonstra, Heather. “What Is Behind the Declines in Teen Pregnancy Rates?”). This drop in teen pregnancy rates occurred across every racial and ethnic group and is partially accredited to the recent emphasis placed on pregnancy prevention within sex education programs and within advocacy groups. But, the biggest influence on the drop in teen pregnancy rates was actually caused by widespread increased contraceptive use, which was responsible for 86% of the decline (Advocates for Youth. “Comprehensive Sex Education: Research and Results”). Both of these methods of suppressing teen pregnancy are brought to the attention of teenagers through sex education programs in and outside of school. There is a 51% reduction in teen pregnancy amongst those receiving comprehensive sex education, and those without the program were significantly more likely to not use contraceptive methods (National Conference of State Legislatures, “Teen Pregnancy Prevention”). Although a much broader range of forms of birth control exist now than ever before, the stigma attached to them is significantly lessened when the information is presented without hesitation. More information is funnelled to young women than ever before. Teenage girls are often encouraged to seek birth control even if their parents may disapprove as public health clinics provide it without needing parental consent, and without contacting parents. While this may seem unsettling to some, its shown to be extremely beneficial. Women are now more than ever reaping the benefits of birth control, and without the knowledge being passed to them through some medium of sexual education, we would still have high teen pregnancy rates to show. And in some areas, we do. In New Mexico and Mississippi, there are no requirements of any sex education at all, and when it is taught in these states, it is abstinence-only (Beadle, Amanda. “TeenPregnancies Highest In States With Abstinence-Only Policies”. These two states currently have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the US, New Mexico’s being 80 pregnancies per 1,000 women, and Mississippi’s being 76 pregnancies per 1,000 women (Lewis, Tanya. “New Rankings Reveal Teen Pregnancy Rate in Each State”). In contrast, New Hampshire, whose school curriculum requires comprehensive sex education, has only 28 pregnancies per 1,000 women (Lewis, Tanya. “New Rankings Reveal Teen Pregnancy Rate in Each State”). The areas amongst every state with still elevated teen pregnancies are low-income areas with a high population of minority groups, where teens are the least likely to receive sex ed, and the most likely to engage in unprotected sex (Centers for Disease Control. “Youth Risk Behaviors Surveillance - United States -2013”).

Sexually transmitted infections and diseases have plagued society for centuries, if not longer. In previous eras they were almost unavoidable and were rarely detected until achieving a terrible end stage where caused the disease to show physical signs. In today’s society, sexually transmitted diseases are highly avoidable when given the proper information, but within the US, there are still 15 million new infections reported annually (National Institutes of Health. “Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention”). In addition to the 15 million annual reports, there are already an estimated 65 millions Americans living with some type of STI, and the majority of which are incurable (National Institutes of Health. “Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention”). The rate of STI infection is the highest amongst those who do not receive correct information (Kohler, Pamela.  “Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy). Teens are likely to engage in activities where STIs are easily transmitted, with or without it being a sexual act, such as anal and or sex, or intravenous drug use. Some people may even become infected through using the same insulin needle as an infected person. Many teens are convinced anal and oral sex are not the same thing as vaginal sex, and do not take proper precautions, as they cannot get pregnant from it. Condoms are often thought of as only serving the purpose of preventing pregnancy and may not be utilized in all sexual encounters or as often as they could. Beyond condoms, there are several other prophylactic devices like dental dams and female condoms. Sexually transmitted diseases can lead to infertility or serious pregnancy complications such as stillbirths, miscarriages, or perinatal infections. One highly popular STI, human papilloma virus, can lead to cervical and anogential cancers. Previous STI infections can provide an environment ideal for the HIV virus to flourish. In the United States, over 493,000 individuals have died from AIDS since its emergence in the 1980s, and over 900,000 people are living with the HIV virus currently (National Institutes of Health. “Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention”). HIV is an STI which is commonly transmitted through several conduits- vaginal sex, oral sex, anal sex, and IV drug or insulin use. It spans all races and genders, but within the state of South Carolina, an African American woman is four times more likely to become infected with HIV than a Caucasian woman. The disease also is spread rapidly through the homosexual community in addition to the heterosexual masses, and highlights another benefit of comprehensive sex education. In an ideal sex education program, heterosexual and homosexual sex are both discussed and protection methods that apply to each form individually are introduced. If a constantly expanding group of more than 8 million Americans are neglected, there cannot be a significant decline in transmission expected (Gates, Gary. “How Many People are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender?”). A comprehensive sex education program encourages abstinence as the best method of STI prevention, but makes sure teens are capable of making good choices and avoiding negative consequences. Teenagers that receive comprehensive sex ed are much more likely to use a condom than those lacking the proper education (Kohler, Pamela. “Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy”). In addition to preventing STIs, comprehensive sex education programs can give insight into STI management by discussing the resources available to help in the case of STI contraction, like local health departments, Planned Parenthood, or clinics. Giving teens the proper information on all aspects of STI prevention and management helps them prevent serious health and personal issues of themselves and others that may have occurred had they not received the necessary information.

A somewhat latent function of comprehensive sex education programs is that it can increase one’s sense of bodily integrity, the “inviolability of the physical body and emphasizes the importance of personal autonomy and the self-determination of human beings over their own bodies” (Wikipedia. “Bodily Integrity”). This necessity spans across cultures- whether it be women in Egypt denying genital mutilation, or activists petitioning for accessible reproductive health care. Two huge aspects of bodily integrity is one’s right to not be violated (sexually or otherwise), and one’s right to be educated on all aspects of personal health. When these two aspects are combined, teens- male and female- are more compelled to report any sexual encounters that were unwanted or violent, and are more likely to define their sexual limits through a lens of personal desire or with less of a focus on the partner’s wants before their own. Placing an emphasis on personal comfort and placing sexuality in a positive light gives a teen the affirmation that they have control over their sexuality, and that when they do engage, it should be in a pleasurable and comfortable manner. It is important to convey to all young people that just because someone is defined as your partner or spouse, that does not mean they cannot rape or violate them. It empowers all genders and sexualities when one feels they have gained power over their own body. For example, transgender men and women are increasingly violated and raped throughout the world, and when enabling a sense of bodily integrity at a young age, it also enables their confidence in executing the appropriate measures when they feel that their bodily integrity has been violated. This would primarily be a group that remains somewhat oppressed and shunned by society, but still deserves the same basic human rights as all other people. Arming all forms of teenagers, including each facet of LGBTQIA, with knowledge pertaining to their personal needs can increase a sense of inclusion as topics related to themselves that were often avoided are now being brought out in the open. Teens that may have been questioning their sexuality that may not have been aware that there is an entire group that identifies similarly to them could feel a skyrocketing sense of belonging and control. When passing information to young adults, you can also improve their sense of bodily integrity by enlightening them on the potential risks of sex, so although they may choose to participate, they are made aware of any potential consequences. In this way, you are not denying them of any knowledge because it is unpleasant, but one is not trying to prevent their engaging in sexual activity through fear. This impact of comprehensive sex education also encourages young people to be more active politically by enlightening them on potential laws or limits that may be placed on them from outside forces within the government, like alterations made to abortion, marriage, or domestic violence laws.

In addition to bodily integrity, another important emotional aspect of comprehensive sex education is that it builds a foundation for one to develop and maintain healthy relationships. These relationships may be with one’s partner, child, and self. When provided with a full spectrum of sexual knowledge, decisions between a person and their partner can become more thought out, cautious, and meaningful. Comprehensive sex education can encourage teens to pose the question of waiting to engage sexually with a partner till they are ready, or can simply arm the teens with the ability to prevent a potentially unwanted and life changing pregnancy. This can provide teens with a means of avoiding all kinds of stressors- economic, newfound responsibility, and personal emotional struggles. A safe and healthy relationship can be founded between two people without the pressures of pregnancy, which can in turn provide a healthier, safer, and more stable environment for any potential children the couple may choose to have. In respect to one’s relationship with their child, comprehensive sex ed can ensure a relationship between child and parent that is not negatively influenced by economic, emotional or environmental factors. This assists in the happiness of the parent as well as the child.  Children can grow in a loving home with a strong family. The relationship with oneself can be improved by developing personal boundaries, values and goals. It allows a person to make their own decisions and grow to know themselves better before entering life-changing decisions, or allows them to become comfortable with their own sexuality.

Without this comprehensive approach to sex education, we may end up perpetuating the current terrible statistical trends. Shocking and undeniable research has been conducted on the ramifications of abstinence-only sex education policies in comparison to the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education, and it’s results and benefits are clearly shown. Alterations made in the amount and presentation of social sexual topics could significantly raise the amount of mutual respect amongst peers with differing views of sexuality, and can promote self acceptance. Keeping this from young people could prove increase to current rape and discrimination trends.  The longer we delay a change in the way each state within the United States educates their adolescents, teens and young adults, the further we will stray from widespread sexual consciousness and positive changes in teen pregnancies and STI contraction.

© Copyright 2018 Kelsey Granger. All rights reserved.

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