Most of us have suffered through it: that dreaded day in fifth or sixth grade when the school nurse or health teacher comes to class to give a room of 25 11-year-olds “the talk.” Sex education is something most American public and private school attendees are forced to put up with at some point in both middle school and high school, but amid talk of rising rates of sexually-transmitted diseases and the fact that kids are becoming sexually active earlier, adversaries of sex education are becoming more and more active in their efforts to curb the extent of sex ed in school.
Some people oppose discussion of contraception, safe sex, abortions and even just detailed anatomic diagrams because they think abstinence is the only option that should be emphasized. Rather than wanting their kids to have an all-inclusive knowledge of sex and its consequences, many conservative parents would rather that no-sex-until-marriage policy be the bottom line of sex education. Part of this demand might be coming from a religious point of view, but as sexually-transmitted disease and HIV issues grow among young people, it is vital that a comprehensive education about sex is provided for the sake of our overall health.
In November 2014, the school board of the Phoenix, Ariz. suburb of Gilbert decided to cut out two pages of a biology textbook that “discuss sexually transmitted diseases and contraception, including mifepristone, a drug that can be used to prevent or halt pregnancy” (The New York Times, “In Arizona, a Textbook Fuels a Broader Dispute Over Sex Education,” 11.27.14).
Some of the parents involved in this case argue that it is against their religious values to use contraception, and therefore, their children should not even be taught about it. With this argument, they are taking a self-centered approach, failing to consider how children not in religious families will be robbed of necessary information about sexual health.
Whether parents choose to recognize it or not, young people today are constantly exposed to sexual images on television, in magazines and on the radio. 66 percent of American high school students have had sex by their senior year. Parents would like to believe that they can prevent their child from having sex, but this is an extremely unrealistic ideal. Many teenagers will have sex earlier than their parents would approve, and they should have a detailed education about the options they have and the precautions they should take. This is not just to ensure education about the risks from sexual intercourse, but also to ensure general well-being.
Sex education standards vary greatly depending on where in the country children are going to school. As of now, 18 states and the District of Columbia require sex education, but 32 states do not require it at all. Even in the states that do require it, what exact facts and information kids are taught varies significantly from state to state (NBC News, “Carnal knowledge: The sex ed debate,” 2013).
Some parents believe that providing kids with extensive sex education will make them want to have sex earlier. But because of the images the media circulates, kids will want to have sex regardless of what they are learning in the classroom. An abstinence-only approach means that kids will be bereft of knowledge needed to maintain their health. It’s not that the option of abstinence is an untenable approach, but kids need to be provided with other reasonable, healthy options. There is a lot more to sexual health than sex itself.
Sexual health aside, discussing sex fairly openly in a health class means that children will grow up with healthier mindsets about sex in general. Parents who have expressed their discontent with sex education in public school are angered by the fact that textbooks associate sex with pleasure rather than just reproduction. However, including pleasure in the discussion of sex and consent teaches younger people that they should only be having sex if everyone involved is enjoying it. If students are not exposed to the stipulations of sexual consent before they start having sex, it could have significant repercussions for them in the future.
There is also the simple fact that if you withhold a certain kind of information, students will be more curious about it and more likely to search for the information on their own. This course of action could lead them to unreliable websites as opposed to the less biased, factual information they would’ve been receiving from a textbook in school. Also, some parents argue that they should be the ones to teach their children about sex—not the public schools. While this might give them some peace of mind, it means that they will be promulgating their own opinions and partialities to their children, instead of letting them formulate their own standpoint.
The issue of sex education in public schools is a complicated one because it calls into question religious and moral values. Despite qualms about children receiving sex education in school, it is essential that kids are well informed about sex. Not only does it set them up for good sexual health and safe sexual practices in the future, but it provides students with the necessary information in order to have a good attitude about sex and how it affects us. Exposure to this information won’t cause young people to have sex earlier or make them more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases. I think it will do just the opposite, making kids much better off.
—Sarah Sandler ’18 is a student at Vassar College.
A very timely and necessary topic about which to write.
Keep up the good, important work, SR