I was taken aback recently when, in a meeting with fellow education leaders, I heard someone gasp after I said that I teach sex education. “It's so weird when you just say it like that,” this person interjected. I was so caught off guard by their comment that I didn’t address it. But I wish I had asked: Why, exactly, is it weird?
What I find weird is that, according to a 2022 article published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, most adults in the U.S. agree that students need access to quality sex education programs, yet schools are ill-equipped to provide quality programs ... and in some cases, too scared to even mention the term sex education. Many fear hostility from people who refuse to acknowledge that young people have a right to learn medically accurate facts about the human body. Quality sex education is comprehensive and builds young people's self-esteem and self-efficacy. It empowers them to make informed decisions based on facts.
Fact: Comprehensive sex education is not a danger to our children. What is dangerous is refusing to talk about the human body or its functions. If we want young people to be healthy, they must know what’s going on with their bodies and feel comfortable asking questions or seeking help when they need it. We can already see the dangers in limiting comprehensive sex education in our country.
National trends in 2021 CDC Sexual Transmitted Infections data show we are currently experiencing the highest rate of syphilis infections in 70 years. For people who can give birth, an untreated syphilis infection can lead to congenital syphilis, which has risen a staggering 203% from 2017 – 2021. In 2021, 58% of congenital syphilis cases were reported from just five states: Texas, Louisiana, Arizona, Florida, and California. Not to mention, half of all new STI diagnoses continue to impact young people ages 15 – 24.
The data is clear: Lack of access to quality sex education programs is contributing to a public health emergency.
I am disappointed by adults who mistakenly purport that teaching children about human reproduction and anatomy will just encourage them to have sex. Research shows that effective sex education actually leads more young people to delay their first sexual experiences and to use condoms and birth control when they do decide to experience sexual intimacy. Understanding reproductive anatomy and puberty is a 5th grade learning objective in the State of Texas – and educators can access the National Sex Education Standards to ensure sexual health information is age-appropriate and medically accurate.
We must also give young people credit for being intelligent and curious beings. They know more than we think they do. And like all of us, they are inundated with sexually graphic images throughout society. Every day, we’re confronted with the reality that sex sells, whether it’s seeing a commercial or billboard for an adult novelty store or driving past one of Houston’s many notorious “breast”aurants. Yet many adults are too scared to have open and honest conversations with young people about sex, even though sex is all around us.
Comprehensive sex education includes learning about STIs, birth control, and gender roles, but it’s so much more, too: Comprehensive sex ed teaches young people about healthy relationships and empowers them to take ownership of those relationships – and their own bodies and lives. It teaches them to be reflective, not judgmental, and to be helpful and understanding, not embarrassed or ashamed. Comprehensive sex ed promotes abstinence as the most effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy and STIs. Importantly, it also encourages young people and their caring adults to communicate about topics that for far too long have been stigmatized.
There is an irony in the so-called “parents’ rights” movement, particularly in their arguments against sex education, because the reality is that parents are heavily involved in the information their children receive in school: In Texas, public school students must receive parent permission to access information about puberty and other topics related to sex education. Parents are informed and engaged in this process, and educators strive not only for parent participation but for parent leadership. In fact, a tenet of comprehensive sex ed is that a child’s parent or guardian is the primary sexuality educator in their life. Young people are encouraged to have at least one caring adult, ideally a parent, with whom they can safely discuss sexuality, anatomy, and their family values and beliefs.
Simply put, comprehensive sex education is vital for the healthy development of all people. This is an issue of health equity: Who gets to understand, and therefore control and care for, their own body? How are individuals supposed to advocate for themselves and nurture their health without knowing how it actually operates? And yes – it is perfectly acceptable, and should be encouraged, that younger children also know the accurate terms for their body parts, which, experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics agree, helps prevent sexual abuse. Young people deserve sex education.
When adults respond with shock or aversion to the very concept of sex education, I wonder, what is the big deal? Why are adults in our society so worried about young people learning how the human body functions – indeed, how it even comes to be? We are all the result of one egg and one sperm.
Ultimately, sex education leads to better health outcomes for entire communities. So, the next time someone says it’s “weird” that I’m a sex educator, I’ll be sure to ask, “why?”