The Need for Evidence-Based Sex Education

Charlotte Scurlock | Managing Editor

Compared to most other western industrialized nations, America has some of the highest  annual rates of unplanned teen pregnancy and STIs, with approximately 600,000 teens becoming pregnant each per year. These high rates can be attributed in part to a lack of education among American youth. While these high rates are disheartening, by implementing evidence-based sex education, rates of teen pregnancy and STIs will go down.

Only 22 states mandate sex education in public schools, and of those only 19 require that the information taught be medically accurate. Additionally, there are only two states in the country — California and Louisiana — that forbid the inclusion of religion during sex education. This means that sex education programs often include medically inaccurate information and neglect to teach critical information about the spread of STIs and HIV.

When sex education is taught in public schools, the programs are usually abstinence-based, meaning that students are taught that the only viable option is to wait until marriage for sex. Not only are these programs ineffective in preventing teen pregnancy and controlling the spread of STIs, but they also shame students who choose to have sex and exclude LGBTQIA+ students. In order to lower rates of teen pregnancy and rates of STIs, students need sex education that will provide them with all the information they need to have sex safely, should they choose to do so.

Evidence-based sex education programs, on the other hand, are designed to provide comprehensive, medically accurate information about reproductive and sexual health. By including information on the most effective forms of contraception and how to have healthy relationships, evidence-based sex education has been proven effective in encouraging teens to delay sex and use proper contraception when they do choose to have sex.

Many people believe that by teaching about how to prevent pregnancy, evidence-based programs are encouraging teens to have sex, but this is simply not the case. Sex education can include information on how to protect against STIs and unintended pregnancy while also highlighting the benefits of abstinence. Evidence-based programs usually promote abstinence as the best option, while also teaching students what resources are available to them should they choose to have sex.

For proof of the effectiveness of evidence-based sex education, look no further than the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. Established by the Office of Adolescent Health in 2010, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, or TPPP, has done just that: prevented teen pregnancies. The TPPP allocates $101 million in funds each year to community organizations that teach evidence based sex education programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy. Students of these programs have often delayed sexual intercourse, and those that do choose to have sex are far more likely to use condoms or contraception, causing fewer pregnancies and STIs. Since taking office in January, Donald Trump has cut $213 million from the TPPP.

Because abstinence-only programs spend so much time encouraging students to delay sex, they often leave out information young people need to make informed decisions about their sexual health. Take, for example, abstinence-only advocate Pam Stenzel, who has made a career out of teaching abstinence-only sex education at high schools throughout the country. Stenzel emphasizes the dangers of the spread of disease during sex and condemns hormonal contraception by saying “that drug, that hormone… has just made [this girl] ten times more likely to contract a disease than if she were not taking that drug. This girl could end up sterile or dead.”

While Stenzel is right that hormonal forms of birth control do not protect against STIs, she makes no attempt to inform her students about ways they can actually prevent the spread of STIs, like the use of condoms. As sex therapist Gloria Brame says, “No comprehensive sex ed = no reliable information on how STDs are transmitted and no understanding of how to prevent them.” Stenzel spends so much time shaming students that do choose to have sex that she neglects to provide any information on how to have sex safely. She acts as though there are only two options when it comes to teen sex: abstinence or pregnancy and disease. This polarizing approach leads to harmful outcomes, as teens do not know how to safely have sex when they inevitably choose to do so.

Additionally, abstinence-only programs often do not say enough about consent. Because abstinence-only programs spend so much time talking about why teens should wait to have sex, and so little time teaching anything else, many students are taught different definitions of consent. Rates of sexual assault in America are astronomical– approximately one in five American women experience sexual assault at some point in their lives– and they can be attributed in part to a lack of understanding regarding what is and isn’t consent.

The Netherlands has already adopted a more comprehensive approach to sex education, with discussions about sexuality and consent beginning for students as young as age four. While four may seem like too young an age for children to start discussing sex, the results in the Netherlands speak for themselves: The Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancy in the world, as well as STI and HIV transmission rates five times lower than those in the United States.

There are other factors that lead to the lower rates of teen pregnancy and STIs in the Netherlands, like wider and cheaper access to contraception. But starting sex education early has proven to be very effective in preventing unplanned pregnancies and the spread of STIs. Lessons which students discuss the positive effects of hugging and kissing have been proven helpful in teaching young students to articulate when and how they want to be touched, which they can later apply to understanding consent.

Students discuss sex throughout their elementary school education, with lessons ranging from anatomy to contraception. As Dutch youth sexual development expert Ineke van der Vlugt says, “people often think we are starting right away to talk about sexual intercourse [with kindergartners], [but] sexuality is so much more than that. It’s also about self image, developing your own identity, gender roles, and it’s about learning to express yourself, your wishes and your boundaries.” By learning about sex and sexuality at such a young age, Dutch students are empowered to make informed and safe decisions when it comes to having sex.

Most sex education programs do not include information for LGBTQIA+ students. According to the 2013 National School Climate Survey, only about five percent of students were shown positive representation of LGBTQIA+ relationships during their sex education. Improving the curriculum for LGBTQIA+ students would be as simple as providing information about gender and sexuality, including positive representation of LGBTQIA+ individuals and relationships, and stressing the use of contraception for everybody and working to dispel myths and stereotypes.

Having not been taught accurate information during sex education, many LGBTQIA+ youth often turn to the internet to answer their questions about sex and sexuality. The internet is full of medically inaccurate and age inappropriate material (videos of Pam Stenzel, for example, plague the internet), causing misinformation and confusion, which can lead to negative sexual health outcomes later in the lives of LGBTQIA+ youth.

By seeing positive representations of LGBTQIA+ relationships and sex early on, straight students are more likely to be accepting and understanding of LGBTQIA+ identities, leading to more inclusive school and work environments, as LGBTQIA+ people will not have been stigmatized against early on.

The facts are on the side of evidence-based sex education. When students are more informed about sex and sexuality, they are more likely to make safer and smarter decisions that lead to lower rates of pregnancy and STIs. Providing American students with inclusive and informative information from an early age will lead to healthier teens.