The State of Sex Education in the US: Room for Improvement

In April, the Huffington Post using data from the Guttmacher Institute produced some pretty scary infographics highlighting the state of sex education (or lack thereof) in this country.  While it’s shocking that many states have no sex education requirement, it’s doubly shocking that where sex education is provided, that there are MANY states in which there is no requirement that: 1) HIV information be included or that 2) Information provided be medically accurate.

SexEdMaps1_2Of course, sexuality education courses aren’t the only place that people are getting their information—they’re getting it from movies, television, friends, parents, and, increasingly, people, and youths in particular, are getting their information from the Internet.  The thing about all of those sources, though, is they’re often not medically accurate.  Television and movies rarely show people practicing safe sex—you don’t see a conversation between two people about whether or not they’ve been tested, how recently, if they have a condom—and then you also rarely see consequences from that failure to negotiate safe sex or condom use (unless it contributes to some juicy story line or plot twist).

On the other hand, in a 2009 study, half of the websites that occurred within the top 10-15 hits on Google when someone searched for terms like “birth control,” “morning after pill,” or “sexually transmitted disease” failed to provide accurate or complete information.  Further, an issue brief released by the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD) that supported the qualitative data from our previous youth intervention findings showed that the misconceptions held by adults around HIV and sexual health can be passed through generations leading to increased silence around risk and reduced knowledge of the need for prevention services and care.

SexEdMaps4So with all of that misinformation out there, it’s even more imperative to ensure that schools have comprehensive and accurate sex education.  And comprehensive means comprehensive – not just one hour in health class in spring of your Sophomore year. It means starting to provide age-appropriate sexual health information at a young age that enables young people access to medically accurate information rather than misinformation and myths.

And it’s not just about the right to have accurate information—this cloud of misinformation around sexual health has real consequences. In 2010, youth between ages 13 and 24 made up 17% of the population, but made up 26% of new HIV infections. Most importantly, education on sexual health does not lead to an increase in sexual activity. Quality sexual health education often delays sexual activity, increases condom use, and decreases the total number of sexual partners. This data just goes to show that failing to provide sex education, failing to talk about HIV or STIs or contraceptives or condoms, failing to require information to be medically accurate—we’re not stopping young people from being sexually active! They will continue to engage in sexual activity, but the difference is that they won’t be safe or smart about it.

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Just as our health care providers have a responsibility to provide accurate information, our schools and our health classes have a responsibility to provide accurate sexual health information. Young people—and people of all ages—have a right to accurate and complete information about their sexual health so they have the tools to make the decisions that are right for them.