Sex education refers to formal programs of instruction on a wide range of issues relating to human sexuality, including human sexual anatomy, sexual reproduction, sexual intercourse, reproductive health, emotional relations, reproductive rights and responsibilities, abstinence, contraception, and other aspects of human sexual behavior.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, New York City's public middle and high schools will be required to teach students about sex.
In an email to principals last night, Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott said mandatory sex education will start in the second semester of the 2011-2012 school year. The curriculum will be flexible but will include lessons on how to use condoms, how to avoid unwanted sexual encounters and how to respect relationship partners.
"We have students who are having sex before the age of 13; students who have had multiple sexual partners; and students who aren't protecting themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS," wrote Walcott. "I believe the school system has an important role to play with regard to educating our children about sex and the potential consequences of engaging in risky behavior."
The debate over whether to have sex education in American schools is over. A new poll by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government finds that only 7 percent of Americans say sex education should not be taught in schools. Moreover, in most places there is even little debate about what kind of sex education should be taught, although there are still pockets of controversy. Parents are generally content with whatever sex education is offered by their children's school (see Parents Approve sidebar), and public school principals, in a parallel NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School survey, report little serious conflict over sex education in their communities nowadays. Nearly three-quarters of the principals (74 percent) say there have been no recent discussions or debate in PTA, school board or other public meetings about what to teach in sex ed. Likewise, few principals report being contacted by elected officials, religious leaders or other people in their communities about sex education.
More than two out of three public school districts have a policy mandating sexuality education, according to research published in 1999 by The Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI). Most of these policies—more than eight in 10—were adopted during the 1990s, a period of intense debate in many state governments and local communities over whether sexuality education curricula should include information about contraception as well as the promotion of abstinence.
According to Columbia University researchers, virginity pledge programs increase pledge-takers’ risk for STIs and pregnancy. The study concluded that 88 percent of pledge-takers initiated sex prior to marriage even though some delayed sex for a while. Rates of STIs among pledge-takers and non-pledgers were similar, even though pledge-takers initiated sex later. Pledge-takers were less likely to seek STI testing and less likely to use contraception when they did have sex
According to the Centers for Disease Control and the Kaiser Family Foundation, approximately 65 percent of all sexually transmitted infections contracted by Americans this year will occur in people under 24. One in four new HIV infections occurs in people younger than 22.
Currently 18 states and the District of Columbia require schools to provide sex education and 32 do not. In some states, such as Louisiana, kids might learn about HIV/AIDS, but not about any other STDs or how to prevent pregnancy. In other states, like Washington, teens receive information on everything from birth control pills to homosexuality
Thirty percent of fifth- and sixth-grade public school teachers in the selected categories—an estimated 90,070 of the teachers who teach grades five and six in public schools nationwide—say they teach sexuality education.** The proportion of teachers who teach sexuality education varies by category of teacher: Thirty percent of fifth-grade classroom teachers cover this subject, as do 31% of sixth-grade classroom teachers, 59% of nurses and 17% of other specialized teachers (physical and health education and science teachers). At these grade levels, classroom teachers are the largest category of sexuality education teachers (77%), while 13% are school nurses and 10% are physical or health education or science teachers.
Current Barriers to Sex Education Implementation
Reduced federal funding for abstinence-only programs is a step in the right direction. However, advocates had hoped that these funds would be eliminated entirely. Further, making funding for evidence-based teen pregnancy, HIV and STI prevention available does not guarantee that high quality comprehensive sex education will be implemented in schools across the United States. Barriers to implementation and institutionalization continue to exist
Between 1988 and 1995, formal reproductive health education became nearly universal among adolescent males: In 1988, 93% of teenage males received some formal instruction, compared with 98% in 1995. The percentage of teenage males who received instruction about AIDS increased from 73% to 97% and the proportion who received instruction about how to say no to sex increased from 58% to 75%. Adolescent males who had dropped out of school received significantly less reproductive health education than those who had stayed in school, however. In addition, the median age at initial instruction decreased from age 14 to 13. Many males did not receive instruction prior to first intercourse, with non-Hispanic blacks being significantly less likely than other males to receive education prior to first intercourse. In 1995, 54% of black males had received reproductive health education before they first had sex, compared with 68% of Hispanic males and 76% of non-Hispanic white males. A smaller share of adolescent males than females received reproductive health education, and males were less likely than females to receive instruction prior to first intercourse.
By 1989, 23 states had passed mandates for sexuality education, an additional 23 states strongly encouraged sex education, 33 mandated AIDS education and 17 additional states recommended it.2 In June of 1989, SIECUS published “Sex Education 2000: A Call to Action,” which outlined 13 goals that would ensure that all children received comprehensive sexuality education by the year 2000. The introduction to this document speaks to the optimism of the time: “A new national consensus on the importance of sexuality education is emerging ... National public leaders, including the Surgeon General of the United Sates, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Department of Health and Human Services have recently urged the implementation of comprehensive sexuality education for children and youth.”
For the first time ever, educators, local and state board members, and parents have a set of uniform, national sexuality education standards to measure the content of their schools’ programs: The National Sexuality Education Standards. Its goal is “to provide clear, consistent, and straightforward guidance on the essential minimum, core content for sexuality education that is age-appropriate for students in grades K–12.”