Teens are having sex. Among high school students surveyed in 2015 by the CDC, 41 percent had engaged in sexual intercourse. Thirty percent of all surveyed students had sex in the last 3 months, and out of those, 43 percent did not use a condom and 14 percent did not use any method to prevent pregnancy whatsoever. Though teen pregnancy rates are the lowest they’ve been in years, the United States still has the highest teen birth rate of any developed nation.
In addition to the high rates of teen pregnancy in the U.S., the CDC reports that “young people (aged 13-24) accounted for an estimated 22% of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States in 2015.” Of the 20 million new STDs reported in the same year, half were among young people between the ages of 15 and 24.
The idea of “sex-ed” conjures up images of balding health teachers, bananas, and free cardboard tampons—that is, if you receive it at all. The National Conference of State Legislature reports that all fifty states are somehow involved in sex education, though it is not legally mandated everywhere. Of our fifty states, only 24 and the District of Columbia require that public schools teach sex-ed. Just 33 states and the District of Columbia require HIV education, and only 20 require it to be scientifically accurate.
In order to consider the way sex-ed operates in the United States, it is imperative to understand that it falls to the hands of the state, and often, to individual school districts. There is no federally-mandated sex-ed program for teens in the United States. Programs vary heavily from state to state, and in many states, parents have the option to opt-out of sex-ed for their children. Between 2011 and 2013 for example, only 60% of young women received formal instruction about methods of birth control, according to The Guttmacher Institute, an international nonprofit that researches sexual health.
For the most part, sex-education programs in the U.S. focus on abstinence. Many groups and states believe that abstinence-only education delays sexual activity, and therefore prevents teen pregnancy. Congress provided $85 million to abstinence programs in fiscal year 2016. However, a federally-funded study in 2007 shows that young people enrolled in abstinence-only programs are no more likely to delay sexual initiation than teens not enrolled in such programs.
Where an abstinence-only program utilizes virginity pledges and a “just say no to sex” approach, a comprehensive program teaches about contraception, condoms, and sexual orientation.
Comprehensive sex-ed programs have been vetted and encouraged by the American Medical Association, UNESCO, the CDC, and other public health groups. The myth surrounding sex-ed is that the more you teach, the more sexually active young people will be; however, no existing study proves this claim. In fact, strong evidence suggests that comprehensive sex-ed actually helps young people delay sexual decision making.
In 2007, the teen birth rate in the U.S. was 42.5 births per 1,000 women (aged 15-19). In 2007, the teen birth rate in The Netherlands was 4.8 births per 1,000 women. And in France it was 7.1 births per 1,000 women. Elementary schools in The Netherlands are required by law to deliver what it calls “sexuality education” as early as kindergarten. This programming consists of “core principles” such as sexual diversity, orientation, and open, honest communication. The focus is on relationships, and what healthy intimacy feels like. Students are asked things like: “how do you feel when someone hugs you?”
It’s not just fluff, either. The desired outcome of sex education is to decrease rates of STIs, HIV/AIDS, and pregnancy in young people, and The Netherlands is doing just that. PBS reported that “teens in the Netherlands do not have sex at an earlier age than those in other European countries or in the United States.” Additionally, “When they do have sex, a Rutgers WPF study found that nine out of ten Dutch adolescents used contraceptives the first time, and World Health Organization data shows that Dutch teens are among the top users of the birth control pill.”
Studies from Georgetown University, the United Nations, and The Guttmacher Institute all report that investing in the sexual education of teens and pre-teens leads to a decrease in teen pregnancy and STI rates. Nearly 40% of millennials feel that the sex-ed they received in school was unhelpful, according to a study by the Public Religion Research Institute. And more than half of 7th–12th graders say they have looked up health info online to learn more about issues affecting themselves or others.
While states maintain their right to control sex-ed policy, a variety of public groups work on behalf of young people. Organizations like Advocates For Youth believe that young people have a right to comprehensive sexual education, and devote their time to policy reform and program implementation. UNESCO has developed a comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) curriculum which it distributes in eight languages online, and implements around the world.
Policy trends show that states are getting stricter on abortion, reproductive health, and open discussions about sexuality. The research shows that the more we dismiss sexual health as an important issue, the worse our outcomes will be. Abstinence-only education is not working, and yet, these programs are still implemented in a majority of the country. Not even half of the U.S. states require their sex or HIV education be medically accurate. The Guttmacher Institute reports that the average American has sex for the first time at 18. Whether or not teens are educated, they will have sex.
“Withholding facts and resources about sexual health — information about contraceptives, consent, having regular screenings for sexually transmitted infections, and reproductive health — is unfair and frankly, scandalous,” says Advocates For Youth President Deb Hauser. “Our tax dollars should not be used to fund inadequate and irresponsible abstinence-only, but instead for a curricula that recognize the normality of youth sexual development and promote comprehensive sex education.”