Sex education has been a controversial topic for decades. Some believe it should be left to parents and families to decide when, how, and what to tell their children about sex, while others believe a more uniform curriculum should be taught in schools. Some form of sex education has been in schools for decades, yet the content is still being disputed.
Concerned parent and journalist, Peggy Orenstein, focuses on the importance of fact-based, informative sex education with more than just “the mechanics” – she pushes for consent, healthy relationships, and the impacts of pornography and dress codes to be added to the public school sex education curriculum. She has written many books on these issues including, “Girls & Sex”, “Don’t Call Me Princess: Girls, Women, Sex & Life”, and “Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap”.
In her article about California’s new sex education mandates, Education Week writer and blogger, Evie Blad, highlights aspects of California’s new sex education curriculum as a potential solution to the current outdated and sometimes misinforming curriculums currently found in public schools.
Lorna Garcia, an author and associate professor of sociology and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies the intersections of gender, sexuality, and race, writes about how the #MeToo movement highlighted a need for imminent action and change in how we teach children and teenagers about sexual issues.
THE PROBLEM & EFFECTS
Parents, teachers, and professionals are concerned about what is being taught in sex education classes in schools. A recent survey by the CDC found that 83% of sexually experienced teen girls had no experience with sex education class before having sex for the first time, and 7.3% reported being forced into sexual intercourse when they didn’t want to (Blad, 2015). Sex education varies widely across the country — only 22 states and the District of Columbia require public school sex education (NCSL, 2016). Of these states, many only teach abstinence, or exclude information regarding consent, sexually transmitted disease, or contraceptives and pregnancy prevention (Blad, 2015). Peggy Orenstein explains that kids are resorting to pornography to teach themselves about sex, which she says is “not how our kids should learn about how people interact sexually”, she argues that it misinforms kids and leads to more unplanned pregnancies, blurred lines of consent, and STDs. Orenstein also holds schools responsible for today’s hook up culture, harassment, and dehumanization of teens in their sexual encounters. She argues that schools reduce girls’ self-worth to their bodies through one-sided dress codes designed to “avoid distracting boys”, teaching young men they have permission to do as they please if girls dress a certain way, rather than holding young men accountable for their reactions and responses (Orenstein, 2017). Loren Garcia also criticizes school dress codes for focusing nearly exclusively on what girls wear, reinforcing the sexual double standard that gives more freedom to boys than to girls.
While Garcia believes that the comprehensive sex education curriculum is more effective than the abstinence-only curriculum, she pushes that it could be even more comprehensive, including lessons about sexual harassment and gender inequality. In a national survey conducted in 2011, it was found that 56% of girls and 40% of boys experience some form of sexual harassment during the 2010-2011 school year (Garcia, 2018). Garcia criticizes the lack of teacher education to prepare them to recognize and intervene in incidents of sexual harassment. Author of Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School and sociologist C.J. Pascoe found that teachers often fail to do anything about harassment that they witness in schools, or they minimize the seriousness of the incident (Garcia, 2018). Racial biases further influence teachers’ perception and subsequent action in these incidents. Research has shown that teachers perceive black and Latinx students to be more adult-like and less innocent, thus in need of less protection. Furthermore, educators sometimes punish girls of color when they attempt to protect themselves, or assume they provoked their own harassment (Garcia, 2018).
California’s new sex education requirements model a feasible possible solution. It requires secondary schools offer sex education classes that include accurate information on development, sexuality, pregnancy, contraception, sexual orientation, and sexually transmitted diseases (Blad, 2015). Recently, California required that colleges teach affirmative consent, but this is the first law to move the conversation earlier than college and start in secondary schools. Previously, there were no laws that mandated discussions of consent at any point. Five states considered similar bills to promote or require teaching about consent, but only California approved the legislation. Many comprehensive sex education advocates believe the conversation about consent and healthy relationships should begin well before teenagers are considering having sex for the first time.
Loren Garcia argues for an expansion of our definition of sex education. Rather than limiting the curriculum to sex ed that is taught in a health class, she argues that it should be discussed in history classes where students can read about Title IX cases and familiarize themselves with the federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination in educational settings. She proposes the facilitation of conversations in social studies classes on gender stereotypes in the media to help students in developing media-literacy skills. Garcia pushes that this diversification of sexual education can empower students to act for gender equity both in their schools and in the world around them (Garcia, 2018).
California Right to Life Committee argued that the new affirmative consent sex education bill is “another non academic subject forced on teachers and their students in an effort to mitigate a cultural problem”. This bill, however, was supported by Association of California School Administrators, the California State PTA, the California Teachers Association, and the National Association of Social Workers (Blad, 2015).
Other critics of comprehensive sex education fear that if students are fully equipped with accurate information regarding sex and contraceptives, they will begin having premarital sex all the time with many different partners (Carroll, 2017). However, Orenstein notes that students who received holistic sex education (involving consent, human rights perspective, impact of porn on kids, reciprocity, not just mechanics of reproduction) are very thoughtful, have a higher bar for their sexual experience, humanize their partners, and are actually not being sexual with each other more often than their peers who receive other forms of sex education. Comprehensive sex ed doesn’t encourage students to have sex (Orenstein, 2017).
- Bland, E. (2015). “California Blazes Trail with New Sex Education Mandates”. Education Week. 35(8).
- Carroll, A. (2017). “Sex Education Based on Abstinence? There’s a Real Absence of Evidence”. The New York Times.
- National Conference of State Legislatures. (2016). State Policies on Sex Education in Schools.
- Orenstein, P. (2017). “We Aren’t Doing Enough to Teach Girls About Sex (Q&A)”. Education Week. 36(30).
- Garcia, L. (2018). “It’s 2018. It’s Time to Update Sex Ed.” Education Week. 37(30). 24