Synthesis of Scholarly and Practitioner Articles
Compared to other Global North nations, the U.S. has very high rates of adolescent pregnancy and STI transmission. Despite this, few states have mandated comprehensive sex ed (CSE) curriculums, and instead several require abstinence-only education (AOE). Often practitioners believe CSE curriculums need to be implemented because student voice and demand should be listened to. Scholarly studies suggest AOE is ineffective at decreasing adolescent birthrates STI transmission, and that CSE is necessary to provide Americans with medically accurate and inclusive information, without which discussions of sexuality, gender identity, and health are stigmatized.
The team of Jacqueline Daugherty and Richelle Frabotta from Miami University argues that CSE is a human right which is restricted in the U.S. due to a prioritization of morality over science. Their research indicates that the U.S. is unique as a wealthy Global North country with no federal policy requiring CSE and funding changes with each presidency (Daugherty, 2018, p. 82). Of the 24 states that do require sex ed, only 13 require medically accurate information, and 3 require that diverse gender identities are discussed negatively and gender stereotypes are taught as fact (Daugherty, p. 83). Not only are these requirements incredibly harmful to student mental health and development, but they are often attached to AOE policies. Without CSE, ratesof unwanted pregnancy, STI transmission, and vulnerability to coercive relationships increase (Daugherty, p. 81). This study suggests that CSE curriculums (rather than AOE) should be taughtby certified teachers to reduce stigma around sex and gender rather than increase it. Ashley M. Fox et al. of Princeton University researched the correlation between AOE and pregnancy prevention funding and adolescent birthrates. They found that “federal abstinence-only funding had no effect on adolescent birthrates overall but displayed a perverse effect, increasing adolescent birthrates in conservative states” (Fox et al., 2019, p. 497).CSE reduces adolescent birthrates, and conservative states (which tend to have higher adolescent birthrates) are most receptive to changing from AOE to CSE funding. Based on the findings of this study, Fox et al. recommend that intervention programs should be evidence-based pregnancy prevention programs rather than emphasize abstinence.
Rose Barcklow, a specialist in public health and sexual-violence prevention, explains that students want CSE to engage with current events. Especially in the wake of the MeToo movement, students want to be socially active but feel under-informed to do so effectively. Barcklow supports the notion that the U.S. needs federally mandated curriculums and trained teachers. Barcklow cites two of the largest obstacles to sex ed: teachers feeling pressure to shorten sex ed curriculums due to subject-based evaluation and fear of parent outrage. She suggests that the best way to incorporate CSE into schools is by asking students directly what they want to learn and including parents in discussions about how to talk about sex ed with their children. Her focus is on using student voices as the fuel for change, stating that “when you follow their needs and requests, comprehensive sex ed always rises to the top” (Stolzfus, 2019, para. 12). Lorena Garcia, a sociologist and associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, affirms that student demand for CSE has risen after MeToo. She suggests that a truly comprehensive curriculum would include sexual harassment and gender equality as these are topics that students feel affected by every day (Garcia, 2018, para. 3). Garcia also agrees that CSE is more effective at reducing adolescent birthrates and STI transmission than AOE.
Conclusion: Next Steps
All agree that the U.S. needs federally mandated CSE with trained teachers, and that pregnancy prevention programs are more effective than AOE at decreasing adolescent birthrates and STI transmission.