“Don’t have sex,” said the health teacher in Mean Girls, “or you will get pregnant. And die.” Unfortunately, this may not be far off as far as sex education goes in American public high schools.
Currently, there is no one definition for sex education in public schools. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education. Nineteen of those 22 must provide medically accurate, though the definition of “medically accurate” tends to vary between states. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia require school districts to allow parental involvement in sex-education programs, and 35 states and the District of Columbia allow parents to opt out of sex education on behalf of their children.
To make matters worse, abstinence-only programs fall under the sex-education programs listed above. According to Advocates for Youth, the dangers of abstinence-only programs include false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, false information about the risks of abortion, religious beliefs presented as scientific fact, stereotypes about boys and girls presented as scientific fact and various medical and scientific errors.
Comprehensive sex education does not encourage students to have sex — rather, it informs them of the potential risks and helps them take the necessary steps to deal with the consequences. Telling students not to have sex — or to wait until marriage to have sex — does nothing when they might already be facing unwanted pregnancies and STDs of their own.
The lack of a concrete, comprehensive, nationwide sex-education program also carries disturbing implications for victims and survivors of rape. Without access to reliable information, these victims and survivors will find it extremely difficult to receive the help they need. To make matters worse, abstinence-only education can further shame and trigger them. When high schools fail to provide adequate sex education, it’s up to universities to pick up the slack. Orientation programs can only do so much, since they largely depend on assumptions made about incoming students.
“Assuming that incoming students will experiment with newfound freedom and illicit substances, they run programs that inform students of the problems associated with certain risky behaviors and attempt to teach them how to manage risks,” a post on The National Campaign said. “At my college, all students attended a mandatory assembly and took an online lesson about drinking. Even though it was illegal for most of the (still underage) freshmen to drink, they taught us about the potential risks anyways. Why are the same lessons not being taught for sexual health education? Are these other topics more important?”
One such assumption about an incoming class may be that a majority of the students already know of the risks and dangers of unprotected sex, but that is a dangerous assumption to make — what happens to the people without access to this information? Even now when we students have access to a wide range of information through the internet, we may not necessarily know where to look, or even what we’re looking for. Sex itself is not dangerous; ignorance is.