Someone told me the other week that there was probably a girl who had already had a baby sitting through an abstinence-only lesson in his high school; this is the reality of sex education in America. Although it is an agreed upon truth that the sex education system in America is deeply flawed, it is not as well known that this inherently problematic system is situated even deeper than individual opinions concerning sex and sexuality–it is actually rooted in the law. And not only does sex education fail the cis-gendered, heterosexual population towards whom it is focused, it also directly denounces queer identities and relationships by either failing to address a multiplicity of sexualities or framing non-hetero identities in negative terms. Here are some numbers pertaining to the current state of sex education in America:
- 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, and 33 states mandate HIV education, but only 13 states require that information be medically accurate.
- Only 8 states mandate that instruction is appropriate to individuals’ cultural background and not biased against race, ethnicity, or sex.
- Only 18 states require that information on contraception be provided.
- Only 12 states require a discussion of sexual orientation.
One of the major issues stems from abstinence programs. Whereas some states, by law, can only teach abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, others have the option of choosing an abstinence-plus program.
Abstinence-plus programs involve lessons on contraception and STDs, “but only if that discussion includes a factual presentation of the risks and failure rates*** of those contraceptives,” and prohibit teachers from telling or showing students how to use condoms or other contraceptives. Presumably, the idea here is to stress failure rates of condoms to scare teens into abstaining from sex. While it is true that there is a difference between actual use effectiveness and theoretical use effectiveness of condoms (85% and 98% respectively), this is due to the fact that either people do not use the condom properly or they don’t use a condom every time they have sex. However, by prohibiting demonstration of how to use a condom, these programs are essentially contributing to the lower actual use effectiveness rate of condoms (because many teens may not know how to use a condom properly), and fueling misconceptions that contraceptive methods are not effective methods for preventing pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Therefore, these programs fail to equip adolescents with the information they need to make educated decisions about sex.
To clarify, I think that the choice to practice abstinence should never be valued more or less than other options regarding sexual activity, but rather, the choice to remain abstinent should be made after information about all options has been made equally accessible. It should not be the ‘default,’ or ‘moral’ option, as it is frequently framed in these obsolete education programs. Studies have shown that, in contrast to abstinence-only programs, “comprehensive sex education programs can change the behaviors that put young people at risk” by teaching adolescents “the skills they need to delay sexual initiation, while also preparing them with the information and skills needed to protect themselves and their partners when they do become sexually active.” Under comprehensive sex education programs, teens receive information, ideally before they become sexually active, on both abstinence and contraception. Therefore, comprehensive programs represent a step in the right direction as they give adolescents more information with which to make decisions about what they choose to do in bed.
That being said, in addition to failing the cis-gendered, heterosexual population towards whom it tends to be exclusively geared, sex education in America effectively erases identities that do not conform to the heteronorm. There is a complete negation of queer sexuality that many spaces in the United States have not even begun to address. Three states actually mandate, in the law, that sex education present homosexuality as unnatural or illegal. Alabama’s sex education curriculum includes “an emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” Texas “mandate[s] the inclusion of only negative information of sexual orientation.” And per Mississippi’s sex education curriculum, teachers can instruct students that “homosexual activity under the ‘unnatural intercourse’ statute is illegal,” and that “monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the only appropriate setting for sexual intercourse.” Again, these are not just individuals’ personal opinions–this is the law.
Whereas many sex education programs invalidate so many expressions of sexuality by simply not addressing them, these laws overtly condemn any adolescent exploration that does not align with a normative and extremely narrow idea of sexuality. Despite a Supreme Court decision in 2003 which ruled that homosexuality is not actually illegal in any state, these extremely offensive and entirely false mandates remain in state legislation concerning sex education.  The implications are detrimental.
Individuals are denied any feelings they may have that deviate from the heteronorm, and essentially told that any identity outside heterosexuality does not, or should not, exist. What does not comply to a hegemonic ideal is either directly denounced or otherwise erased from discussion of adolescent sexuality, and this ultimately creates a very narrow definition of what is “normal” in society. It is important to remember that these homophobic beliefs are not just the backwards attitudes of a few individuals, but are deeply, and unchangingly embedded in several states’ legislation. Additionally, these are not simply archaic laws that people have forgotten about. There have been several proposed amendments to these archaic protocols, but none have succeeded in altering the legislation. Not only is it important to fight for acceptance on an ideological level, but it is crucial that the laws not contradict or hinder any potential progress.
We cannot continue to deny adolescents access to medically accurate information – taught in inclusive, non-biased and identity-comprehensive manners. Neither sexual activity nor abstinence should be stigmatized, but rather presented as equally supported decisions adolescents can make, both of which entail a great responsibility. Discussions of sexuality and gender identity should respect the multiplicity and the fluidity of individuals’ identities. Also, these discussions may benefit from gender neutral spaces, unlike the gender segregated environments in which most sex education takes place. Failure or refusal to change both individual attitudes and state legislation concerning sex education is not only traumatic for individual persons, whose identities are already ignored or stigmatized, but also bears larger implications for marginalized groups by fostering and perpetuating homophobic and gender binary societies.
 http://www.guttmacher.org/statecenter/spibs/spib_SE.pdf http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/documents/2011/pdf/HB/0900-0999/HB0999SG.pdf https://www.optionsforsexualhealth.org/birth-control-pregnancy/birth-control-options/effectiveness  http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/gpr/17/3/gpr170315.pdf  http://www.legislature.state.al.us/codeofalabama/1975/16-40A-2.htm  http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/gpr/17/2/gpr170214.pdf  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/08/mississippi-sex-ed_n_5110538.html  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/08/mississippi-sex-ed_n_5110538.html