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Commentary Sexual Health

Why Students Need Sex Education That’s Honest About Racism

Christine Soyong Harley

It is not enough to say that we advocate for “culturally responsive” sex ed. We have to show that our sex education is as honest about racism as it is on any other topic.

For more anti-racism resources, check out our guide, Racial Justice Is Reproductive Justice.

Those of us who work in the field of sex education are no strangers to having difficult conversations. We have made great strides in orchestrating effective discussions around topics of sex, sexuality, and gender among parents, policymakers, educators, advocates, and young people. However, there is one topic that we all need to work to better address within sex education: race.

In response to the #MeToo movement, many leaders in the field jumped into action. We worked hard to advance and uplift necessary conversations and share resources on issues of consent and sexual violence. We were vocal in saying that if we could teach more young people, earlier on, about the dynamics of sexual violence, we could shift our country’s culture to better address the epidemic itself.

Today, as nationwide Black Lives Matter protests continue, leaders in the sex education field, including my organization SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change, need to respond just as loudly and clearly to racial injustice. We need to do our part to honor George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and the many other Black lives taken by police violence and white supremacy.

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At SIECUS, we believe that sex education can, and should, advance racial justice. We have followed the lead of trailblazing groups and advocates, like the Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN), to advocate for sex education to be taught through a racial justice lens. We have joined our partners within the Future of Sex Education Initiative to update and incorporate this approach into national sex education standards. But, still, we have so much more work to do.

This field is committed to ensuring that young people receive the information and skills they need to ensure their own lifelong health and well-being. Many of us regularly demand that sex ed include the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth. It is critical we do the same for Black youth.

“So how can we do better? How do we, as a field, work harder to advance racial justice through sex education?”
-Christine Soyong Harley

White supremacy touches every aspect of our history, culture, and institutions in the United States. Persistent racialized and sexualized stereotypes of Black people and other people of color are often used to justify the most regressive and harmful laws and policies that govern our country—from public assistance program requirements, to our criminal justice system, to our institutions of education.

Our history of racial injustice is intimately connected to longstanding myths that demonize and denigrate Black and other people of color’s sexuality and reproduction. We cannot pretend that these myths aren’t central to white supremacist debates of who is or is not a human being; of who can or cannot be an American; of who does or does not deserve to live.

So how can we do better? How do we, as a field, work harder to advance racial justice through sex education?

Providing high quality sex education that reflects the experiences of Black students, and other students of color, is key. Just as importantly, we must speak out against the harmful abstinence-only programs that our young people continue to receive. Federally funded abstinence-only grants often target low-income school districts, which are more likely to be filled with Black students. These shame-based programs, also called “sexual risk avoidance” are ineffective at achieving their own goals. Recently, these programs have started to center success sequencing, a theory that actively perpetuates racist stereotypes and assumptions.

It is not enough to say that Black people and other people of color are high risk groups for negative sexual health outcomes like HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). We need to also discuss the racist institutional failures behind such statistics. We must train sex educators to name and discuss how racism has affected our medical and educational institutions. From our country’s awful history of eugenics to present-day Black maternal mortality rates, there are countless examples of the powerful and damaging role that racism plays in Black and other people of color’s access to quality sexual and reproductive health-care services and information.

Our efforts to advance racial justice in sex education must also go beyond the content that students receive. We need to address the racism that exists within our mostly white-led field, too. It is past time we look inward to ask, who is leading sex ed organizations? Who sits on their boards? Who makes the decisions? And we must follow the lead of Black youth. That cannot be overstated. No one knows more about ensuring their health and well-being than Black people themselves.

We know that we have a lot of work to do at SIECUS. And we urge our colleagues and fellow advocates to join us in taking urgent and imperative steps to advance racial justice in sex education. To start, we can all vow to:

  1. Ensure that our advocacy efforts center around providing sex education funding and resources to communities that are predominantly made up of Black students and other students of color—not just white, wealthy communities.
  2. Promote sex education instruction and individual curricula that include the experiences of Black students and other students of color.
  3. Urge sex educators to discuss racism and how it has shaped disparate access to health care and information for Black people and other communities of color.
  4. Make space for Black sex educators, advocates, and experts to hold leadership positions within our movement, our organizations, and our schools.
  5. Continue these efforts to advance racial justice regularly—not just in times of crisis. When protests die down and the headlines fade, this work must continue.

As we mourn for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and the many, many other Black lives that have been taken by racism and hate, we commit to working harder to show up for Black people in both our work and in our lives.

It is not enough to say that we advocate for “culturally responsive” sex ed. We have to show that our sex education is as honest, accurate, and complete on racism as it is on any other topic.