Recent research from the Guttmacher Institute finds there have been significant changes in sexuality education during the last decade—and not for the better.
Fewer young people are receiving “formal sex education,” meaning classes that take place in schools, youth centers, churches, or community settings. And parents are not necessarily picking up the slack. This does not surprise sexuality education advocates, who say shrinking resources and restrictive public policies have pushed comprehensive programs—ones that address sexual health and contraception, among other topics—out of the classroom, while continued funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs has allowed uninformative ones to remain.
But just a week before this research was released in April, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (REHYA). If passed, REHYA would allocate federal funding for accurate, unbiased sexuality education programs that meet strict content requirements. More importantly, it would lay out a vision of what sexuality education could and should be.
Can this act ensure that more young people get high-quality sexuality education?
In the short term: No. Based on the track record of our current Congress, it has little chance of passing. But in the long run, absolutely.
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Less Sexuality Education Today
The Guttmacher Institute’s new study compared data from two rounds of a national survey in the years 2006-2010 and 2011-2013. It found that even the least controversial topics in sex education—sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV and AIDS—are taught less today than a few years ago. The proportion of young women taught about STDs declined from 94 percent to 90 percent between the two time periods, and young women taught about HIV and AIDS declined from 89 percent to 86 percent during the same period.
While it may seem like a lot of young people are still learning about these potential consequences of unprotected sex, few are learning how to prevent them. In the 2011-2013 survey, only 50 percent of teen girls and 58 percent of teen boys had received formal instruction about how to use a condom before they turned 18. And the percentage of teens who reported receiving formal education about birth control in general decreased from 70 percent to 60 percent among girls and from 61 percent to 55 percent among boys.
One of the only things that did increase was the percentage of teen girls (from 22 percent to 28 percent) and boys (from 29 to 35 percent) who said they got instruction on “how to say no to sex”—but no corresponding instruction on birth control.
Unfortunately, many parents do not appear to be stepping in to fill the gap left by formal education. The study found that while there’s been a decline in formal education, there has been little change in the number of kids who say they’ve spoken to their parents about birth control.
Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, told Rewire that this can lead to a dangerous situation: “In the face of declining formal education and little discussion from their parents, young people are left to fend for themselves, often turning to their friends or the internet-either of which can be fraught with trouble.”
The study makes it very clear that we are leaving young people unprepared to make responsible decisions about sex. When they do receive education, it isn’t always timely: It found that in 2011-2013, 43 percent of teen females and 57 percent of teen males did not receive information about birth control before they had sex for the first time.
It could be tempting to argue that the situation is not actually dire because teen pregnancy rates are at a historic low, potentially suggesting that young people can make do without formal sex education or even parental advice. Such an argument would be a mistake. Teen pregnancy rates are dropping for a variety of reasons, but mostly because because teens are using contraception more frequently and more effectively. And while that is great news, it is insufficient.
Our goals in providing sex education have to go farther than getting young people to their 18th or 21st birthday without a pregnancy. We should be working to ensure that young people grow up to be sexually healthy adults who have safe and satisfying relationships for their whole lives.
But for anyone who needs an alarming statistic to prove that comprehensive sex education is still necessary, here’s one: Adolescents make up just one quarter of the population, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate they account for more than half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that occur each year in this country.
The Real Education for Healthy Youth Act
The best news about the REHYA is that it takes a very broad approach to sexuality education, provides a noble vision of what young people should learn, and seems to understand that changes should take place not just in K-12 education but through professional development opportunities as well.
As Advocates for Youth explains, if passed, REHYA would be the first federal legislation to ever recognize young people’s right to sexual health information. It would allocate funding for education that includes a wide range of topics, including communication and decision-making skills; safe and healthy relationships; and preventing unintended pregnancy, HIV, other STIs, dating violence, sexual assault, bullying, and harassment.
In addition, it would require all funded programs to be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and to meet the needs of young people who are sexually active as well as those who are not. The grants could also be used for adolescents and young adults in institutes of higher education. Finally, the bill recognizes the importance of teacher training and provides resources to prepare sex education instructors.
If we look at the federal government’s role as leading by example, then REHYA is a great start. It sets forth a plan, starts a conversation, and moves us away from decades of focusing on disproven abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In fact, one of the fun parts of this new bill is that it diverts funding from the Title V program, which received $75 million dollars in Fiscal Year 2016. That funding has supported programs that stick to a strict eight-point definition of “abstinence education” (often called the “A-H definition”) that, among other things, tells young people that sex outside of marriage is against societal norms and likely to have harmful physical and psychological effects.
The federal government does not make rules on what can and cannot be taught in classrooms outside of those programs it funds. Broad decisions about topics are made by each state, while more granular decisions—such as what curriculum to use or videos to show—are made by local school districts. But the growth of the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach and the industry that spread it, researchers say, was partially due to federal funding and the government’s “stamp of approval.”
Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute and a co-author of its study, told Rewire: “My sense is that [government endorsement] really spurred the proliferation of a whole industry and gave legitimacy—and still does—to this very narrow approach.”
The money—$1.5 billion total between 1996 and 2010—was, of course, at the heart of a lot of that growth. School districts, community-based organizations, and faith-based institutions created programs using federal and state money. And a network of abstinence-only-until-marriage organizations grew up to provide the curricula and materials these programs needed. But the reach was broader than that: A number of states changed the rules governing sex education to insist that schools stress abstinence. Some even quoted all or part of the A-H definition in their state laws.
REHYA would provide less money to comprehensive education than the abstinence-only-until-marriage funding streams did to their respective programs, but most advocates agree that it is important nonetheless. As Jesseca Boyer, vice president at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), told Rewire, “It establishes a vision of what the government could do in terms of supporting sex education.”
Boonstra noted that by providing the model for good programs and some money that would help organizations develop materials for those programs, REHYA could have a broader reach than just the programs it would directly fund.
The advocates Rewire spoke with agree on something else, as well: REHYA has very little chance of passing in this Congress. But they’re not deterred. Even if it doesn’t become law this year, or next, it is moving the pendulum back toward the comprehensive approach to sex education that our young people need.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify Jesseca Boyer’s position at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.