Commentary Sexual Health

New Minimum Standards for Sex Education: Progress or Retreat?

Debra Haffner

The newly released sexuality education standards set a minimum for school-based sexuality education. Yet even these leave out essential terms, information, and values. Because so many schools are still so far from adopting even minimal standards, I increasingly feel technology and social media will replace schools as the major source of sexuality education for children and young people.

More than twenty years ago, as the President and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), I co-directed the project to develop the first-ever national Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, Kindergarten through 12th Grade. The Guidelines were published in 1991 as the nation’s schools were struggling with the content of sexuality and HIV education and—coincidently—were released on the Monday following the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. The Guidelines were lauded in a New York Times editorial, endorsed by dozens of organizations, used to create numerous new curricula, and replicated in countries around the world. 

Just a few years later, the federal abstinence-only-until-marriage education law was passed, providing more than a billion dollars over the years in federal funds for programs that had to teach that the only acceptable context for any sexual activity (not just intercourse) was heterosexual marriage. Since then, 26 states have adopted laws that require stressing abstinence, and 18 states have required teaching the importance of sex being confined to marriage. (Conversely, only 13 states have laws that require medically accurate information, and only 9 states require unbiased information on sexual orientation.) Moreover, hundreds of communities each year have battled over the content of sexuality education. These battles are often reduced to whether contraception and STD prevention can be taught in addition to abstinence information.

The fact is that the federal abstinence-only program changed the landscape of sexuality education in the United States, and the fear of controversy means that in most places, teachers are unwilling or indeed unable to teach much beyond what I labeled more than two decades ago as “disaster prevention and organ recitals.” Most schools do not have programs that teach about pleasure, desire, orientation, gender identity, sexual limit setting, masturbation, and abortion. Many teachers have not received adequate training in sexuality education, and the average young person according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention receives fewer than 3 hours in elementary school and six hours in middle school on HIV, pregnancy, and STD prevention.     

I have increasingly begun to feel that the schools will never be able to be the major source of sexuality education for children and young people.  As a long-term advocate for school-based sexuality education, I am dismayed to reach this conclusion. 

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Still, I was eager to read the recently released National Sexuality Education Standards, Core Content and Skills, K-12, co-published this week by the American School Health Association, National Education Association, American Association for Health Education, and the Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education. They were developed by the Future of Sex Education Initiative, a partnership between Advocates for Youth, Answer, and SIECUS.

The introduction to the National Sexuality Education Standards makes the point, indeed in several places, that they are the “the essential minimum, core content” and “minimum, essential content and skills” (italics theirs) for young people. And indeed, they are minimal. I realize that the new standards are not meant to replace the Guidelines. The Guidelines set up the ideal comprehensive sexuality education program and these standards give us the minimum.  Still, I was somewhat surprised to see that the following words appear nowhere in the new Standards: pleasure, desire, kissing, masturbation, fantasy, dysfunction, marriage preparation, limit setting.  As a minister, I am most distressed that the words love, parenthood (except as in “Planned Parenthood”), and marriage preparation also do not appear anywhere in the document.

The areas of shared sexual behavior (beyond stating that students should be able to define sexual intercourse by the 8th grade (!)), marriage, raising children, assertiveness, negotiation, masturbation, shared sexual behaviors, sexual fantasy, sexual dysfunction, sexuality and law, sexuality and religion, sexuality and the media (beyond expanded information on safe use of technology), and sexuality and the arts—all central to the Guidelines—are all also missing from the new standards. The Standards do contain expanded information on sexual and gender orientation and identity, and it is gratifying to see these included in the consensus of what minimally young people need.

As a minister, I am also concerned that the Standards do not seem to adequately commit themselves to the values-based programs that our young people need.  Nowhere do they call for honoring the diversity of religious and moral values represented in our communities, nor do they call for explicitly teaching that decisions about sexual behaviors should be based on moral and ethical values, as well as considerations of physical and emotional health. Finally, they do not call for any respectful discussion of the differing sides of controversial sexual issues. 

Perhaps my greatest concern about the new Standards, however, is that the goal of sexuality education in helping create sexually healthy adults is completely missing. The Guidelines identified the life behaviors of a sexually healthy adult and named “helping young people develop the capacity for caring, supportive, non-coercive, and mutually pleasurable intimate and sexual relationships” in adulthood as a central goal of sexuality education. Just as civics classes are offered to help young people grow into politically involved adults and responsible citizens, so should sexuality education ultimately lead to adults who appreciate their bodies, take care of their sexual and reproductive health, and have the ability to form meaningful intimate relationships, including friendships, lifelong unions, and parent-child bonds.

Do not get me wrong, I understand the importance of meeting schools where they are now and I do hope that these standards will be quickly adopted by states and local school boards.  While the information included is correctly identified as the essential minimum young people should learn in school, too many public schools aren’t even providing that today and hopefully these standards will encourage more schools to adopt sexuality education and help others improve what they are offering. 

Having said that, we must remain conscious that these standards will not fulfill young people’s needs for information and education about sexuality issues, nor do they adequately provide a values-based framework for young people’s decision making. We have to realize that the vast majority of public schools will not offer young people the type of comprehensive sexuality education they need. 

Which brings me back to my strong belief that the future of sexuality education is not in the public schools.

Rather, the future of sexuality education will continue in the emerging world of technology that can deliver content to young people without adult controls and through programs in America’s faith communities and community-based organizations.  The good news of the past decade is that while the adults fight over what content is acceptable in public school curricula, teens are obtaining information outside of school. Teenagers receive more information online, from health services, and from their families, than from their schools. There are excellent dedicated sexual information sites for teens, such as Scarleteen and Sex, Etc., and SMS education (texting) is increasingly available.

Faith-based organizations and community-based organizations can also more easily provide a forum for young people to receive values-based sexuality education than the public school. These programs can assist young people in developing the capacity for moral discernment and a freely informed conscience for responsible sexual decision making.  In fact, a dozen denominations offer sexuality education in their congregations, and they are specifically empowered to offer values-based education to children and teens outside of their home.  The recent decision by the Girl Scouts of the USA to welcome transgender scouts provides another example of how community-based organizations can exercise a more inclusive commitment than many school districts.

In 1989, I wrote in a publication called Sex Education 2000, that sexuality education is a community responsibility: that parents, schools, the media, religious institutions, government, health care services, and community-based agencies all have a crucial role.  In 2012, it’s still true. 

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