Commentary Sexual Health

Stop Missing the Point: Sex Ed Is a Human Right

Chitra Panjabi

Ensuring that all people—and especially young people—have a complete and accurate understanding of how sexuality can shape and affect us is a necessary and moral thing to do.

I’m going to pose an awkward truth: When it comes to sex ed in the United States, supporters and critics alike are missing the point.

Sexuality is a fundamental part of who we are; to deny that is to deny a person’s humanity. That’s why we, as sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates, must promote sex ed not just as a health need but as a human right. Ensuring that all people—and especially young people—have a complete and accurate understanding of how this core part of our identities can shape and affect us is a necessary and moral thing to do.

Right now, in the United States, too much of the sex ed conversation, instruction (both inside and outside of schools), and funding focuses on risk reduction, as in disease or pregnancy prevention. While promoting medically accurate information about contraception, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is critical, it’s not the full A to Zs of sexuality education. That full range includes key components of health and well-being such as being able to communicate needs, wants, and desires; developing relationships with people; setting boundaries; and learning that you have a right to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter your identity.

So how can we ensure young people receive what they need and have a right to? Fortunately, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), a framework developed more than 25 years ago with the publication of the first Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: Kindergarten–12th Grade and further fleshed out by the National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K–12, provide a roadmap.

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With CSE, young people are provided medically accurate instruction—which is appropriate based on age, development, and culture—throughout their K–12 school years. Curricula adhering to the minimum criteria outlined in the National Sexuality Education Standards incorporate aspects of sexuality that go beyond sexual health or even sexual behaviors like using condoms and contraception, and yes—of course—abstinence. It’s a holistic approach to learning about your body; about different ways of communicating and establishing relationships of all kinds with peers, partners, parents, and society; and about having autonomy to assess and challenge the injustices that our culture perpetuates around sexuality.

Comprehensive sexuality education is a core building block from which to destigmatize reproductive health-care options, including abortion, and support healthy relationships from a position of equity and empowerment. In short, CSE is foundational in developing and sustaining an equitable and just understanding of ourselves and others.

Let’s be clear, comprehensive sexuality education is happening in some of the nearly public 14,000 school districts across the country. In 2015, California passed the Healthy Youth Act, which requires elements of CSE from middle school onwards. And last year, the Omaha Public Schools district adopted new standards for sex education for middle and high school students.

This patchwork approach, however, leaves far too many young people without access to even the most basic information about sexuality.

National leadership eliminating abstinence-only funding once and for all and supporting comprehensive sexuality education in schools would go a long way toward ensuring the rights of the about 50 million young people in public schools today.

Unfortunately, for far too long, proponents of abstinence-only programs have perpetuated a “just say no” agenda supported by more than $2 billion in federal funding since 1982. For 35 years, the predominant federal (and often state) approach to sex ed has been ideologically driven, shaming and stigmatizing sexuality, whether we are discussing the act of sex itself or a broader understanding of our sexual identities. Not surprisingly, this perspective that sex is dangerous has affected how some parents, educators, policymakers, and advocates have approached discussions about sexuality for young people. Despite progress that was made under the Obama administration in the establishment of funding streams for research-based programs to support adolescent sexual health, which can include sex ed, the perception of sex and sexuality as a risk to young people also enabled a 55 percent increase in abstinence-only funding last year alone.

Now, the threat of a continued resurgence of abstinence-only programs in place of sex ed is all too real under this administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. By driving funding toward these shaming and stigmatizing programs, the federal government helps perpetuate harmful ideas about young people and sexuality.

Abstinence-only programs not only dictate particular choices to young people (no sex until marriage, only heterosexual marriage can be considered marriage, you’re “damaged goods” if you have sex, getting pregnant as a teen condemns you to a life of poverty, etc.) without regard to their lived experiences, they also perpetuate the endorsement of ideological over educational content. Program content that intentionally or inherently withholds or misconstrues information is not education.

And while all the right phrases are turning up in newer abstinence-only promotional materials, terms like “healthy relationships” and “communication skills” all come back to saying “no” to sexual activity before marriage. These programs are not talking about bodily autonomy, consent, or condom use negotiation, but rather reinforce stereotypically gendered, queer-excluding narratives about sex.

Particularly troubling, abstinence-only programs treat pregnancy as the worst thing that could possibly happen to a young person, with proponents and even federal funding promoting the prescriptive “success sequencing for poverty prevention” (i.e. graduate from high school, get a job, get married, then have children). Perhaps not surprising to many of us, this pathway to “success” generally only holds true if you’re white.

So much of what is ignored in abstinence-only programs is centered around systemic inequities that people of color, those with low-incomes, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and other marginalized communities face. Abstinence-only programs—and, to a greater extent than should make sex ed advocates comfortable, disease and pregnancy prevention evidence-based programs—expect a young person to ignore their whole self and their lived experience to get information in a vacuum.

On the other hand, comprehensive sexuality education addresses a young person’s lived experience and says “I see you. All of you. And you deserve to be treated with dignity and respect so that you can live a healthy, fulfilled life that is right for you.”

If we’re going to make the kind of progress we need at local, state, and federal levels in preventing the spread of abstinence-only programs and encouraging the adoption of comprehensive sexuality education, we as sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates and activists must embrace this truth: Sexuality education is a human right. It’s time we start fighting for it.

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