Significant National Shift Found in Sex Education

Joseph DiNorcia Jr

After nearly thirty years of strong support from the federal government for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, the Obama administration and Congress have ushered in a new era of sex education in this country.

Earlier today, SIECUS released the seventh edition of our SIECUS State Profiles: A Portrait of Sexuality Education and Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs in the States. In this Fiscal Year 2009 edition, SIECUS continues to offer the most in-depth resource for advocates and agencies across the country working to implement comprehensive sexuality education in public schools and communities and eliminate harmful abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Our in-depth research allows us to provide detailed information on each state, as well as graphs, charts, and thoughtful analysis on the overall trends we are seeing at both the federal and state levels. 

But, truly, this year’s profiles are most accurately described as a testament to the incredible work that advocates across the states are doing to promote comprehensive sexuality education. Because of your and their hard work, we are witnessing a significant shift in how the federal government addresses sex education— a shift away from the failed experiment of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and toward a more comprehensive, evidence-based approach. Advocates for comprehensive sexuality education are finally seeing, and beginning to build upon, the fruits of our labor, and this edition of the SIECUS State Profiles reflects and documents this success.


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And, make no mistake, we have seen success. After nearly thirty years of strong support from the federal government for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, the Obama administration and Congress have ushered in a new era of sex education in this country, eliminating two-thirds of federal funding for ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs—the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) program and the abstinence-only-until-marriage portion of the Adolescent Family Life Act—and providing funding for evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention and comprehensive sex education initiatives—the President’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative and the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP)—totaling nearly $190 million.

This year’s edition mirrors the national shift. While we continue our tradition of “following the money” by documenting all federal abstinence-only-until-marriage dollars, we also document more comprehensive approaches to sex education that are happening across the country. For the first time, the SIECUS State Profiles identify examples of model programs, policies, and best practices being implemented in public schools across the country that provide more comprehensive approaches to sex education for young people. The new section, “Comprehensive Approaches to Sex Education,” in each profile provides examples under four different categories: Revised State Sex Education Policy, Updated State Health Education Standards, Revised School District Policy, and Comprehensive Sex Education Programs in Public Schools. Based on SIECUS’ research, there are school districts in at least 21 states and the District of Columbia that provide more comprehensive sex education programs to students. 

States across the country continue to lead the way in advancing policy and implementation of more comprehensive approaches to sex education. In the past few years, states and communities have created and passed a number of model policies and programs that can serve as best practices to be replicated by others across the country. Even, in some cases, in unsupportive climates, areas such as Cleveland, a growing number of counties in Florida, and Pittsburgh are leading the way. Others, such as Oregon and the District of Columbia, showed what is possible through concrete collaboration among all relevant players in sexual and public health and education, continuing to push the boundaries of how far we can go in the effort to reach all young people with comprehensive sexuality education. We have also seen several states, including Colorado, New Jersey, and South Carolina, include more comprehensive sexuality education content in revised education standards, recognizing that, even as an untested subject, health and sex education is a necessity if students are going to achieve the highest academic success possible.

Furthermore, our research documents that, during their 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions, 18 states introduced legislation to advance sexuality education provided in public schools. States that introduced such legislation were diverse in geography, size, and political leanings, ranging from the passage of legislation in Hawaii and Wisconsin requiring groups that receive state funding for sex education or schools that teach human sexuality, respectively, to provide medically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive sexuality education to North Carolina’s significant advance requiring all school systems to offer information to students in seventh, eighth, and ninth grate about the use of contraceptives. We also saw several states, such as Florida, attempt to capitalize on the national funding shift. Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Louisiana included language in their legislation that would require funding allocated for sex education to support medically accurate, evidence-based, and comprehensive programs, while Washington State was even more specific, passing legislation which prohibits the state from seeking federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funds and requires state agencies to apply only for sexual health education funding for programs that are medically and scientifically accurate.

At the first publication of the State Profiles, only three states were out of the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program and there was no state that didn’t see abstinence-only-until-marriage funding through at least one funding stream. This Fiscal Year 2009 Edition documents that there were eight states that did not receive any federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding in Fiscal Year 2009—Delaware, Idaho, , Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wyoming—and by the time the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program expired in June 2009, nearly half the states, ranging from Alaska to Maine, had rejected funding for this unsuccessful program. Our hope is that one day the State Profiles will focus only on the more comprehensive approaches to sex education taking place across the country and follow the federal funding to them. And for a moment in 2009, this seemed the case when we briefly saw the end to all three funding streams for abstinence-only-until-marriage program. However, our progress was hampered by the resurrection of the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program in the recently passed health care reform bill, reminding advocates for comprehensive sex education that as we advance towards our goal of comprehensive sexuality education for all young people, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to mitigate the misinformation foisted upon them.

Recently released teen health statistics also show that we have not yet gotten the right messages to enough young people and we still have a long way to go before all young people are provided with the information and skills they need to be safe and healthy. The current edition includes the very latest in adolescent health statics, including those form the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) which was released just a few weeks before this publication. Unfortunately, when compared with data from 2007, we see that no real progress has been made in the status of adolescent sexual health practices. Alarmingly, the YRBSS did show that the number of high school students reporting having learned about HIV or AIDS in school is 87 percent—the lowest percentage since 1997.

While this newest edition of the SIECUS State Profiles represents the fundamental paradigm shift in Washington, DC and in states and communities across the country, we need to continue to push the boundaries and break new ground, looking for new opportunities to advance comprehensive sex education, such as the National HIV/AIDS Strategy that will soon be released or ongoing education reform efforts. It is our hope that in continuing to learn from, and strategize with, each other, building off best practices and models of success such as those found in these State Profiles, we will reach our ultimate goal of comprehensive age- and culturally appropriate, evidence-based sex education for all school-age youth. We are not yet there, but we have shown that we are on the right track and our strategies are working; and, if the Obama administration continues to be serious about science and evidence, eschewing the ideological advances of a desperate minority, then abstinence-only-until-marriage programs can be truly eliminated and comprehensive approaches to sex education allowed to flourish.

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