A study in this month’s issue of the Guttmacher Institute’s Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health has attempted to start a discussion about whether sex education programs in the U.S. are comprehensive enough. “A Rights-Based Approach to Sexuality Education: Conceptualization, Clarification and Challenges,” by Nancy F. Berglas of the Public Health Institute, discusses the need for a clear definition of a “rights-based” approach to sexual education that would distinguish this method from other curricula currently being used in schools throughout the United States.
Today, sexual education programs in the United States can be divided into two categories: abstinence-only sexual education, which teaches that the only safe way to prevent pregnancy and STDs is by abstaining from sex until marriage, and comprehensive sexual education, which teaches a variety of contraceptive methods including the use of condoms and birth control pills.
According to the study, international sexuality education experts agree that a “rights-based” curriculum would encompass four basic elements: an underlying principle that youth have sexual rights; the expansion of material to cover more than prevention of unwanted pregnancy and STDs and additionally focus on other aspects of sexuality including pleasure; a broadened discussion that includes gender norms, sexual orientation and individual rights and responsibilities; and a teaching strategy that includes critical thinking techniques regarding sexual choices.
Even though 80 percent of U.S. adults support comprehensive sexual education, and even though 86 percent of the decline in teenage pregnancy can be attributed to greater access to and knowledge of contraceptive methods, abstinence-only education programs continue to thrive and have received 1.75 billion dollars in federal funding since 1981. These are the same programs that teach our youth that women who have multiple partners before marriage are synonymous to melted Peppermint Patties.
Misogyny aside, these programs deprive teens of the knowledge they need to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, while simultaneously teaching them that sex is dirty and unnatural. Still, the majority of comprehensive sexual education programs aren’t necessarily a true alternative to these abstinence-only methods, and while their successes in positively impacting teens cannot be ignored, it is imperative that we make a distinction between a sexual education program that simply teaches the basics of reproduction and sexually transmitted disease, and a program that is truly “rights-based,” as described in Nancy’s study.
In a recent interview, Dan Savage, gay American author, media pundit and voice behind the Savage Love podcast and advice column, quite wittily described the “sex ed crisis in America.” As stated by Dan, “I always compare the sex education we currently have to the worst driver’s education course ever!”
Humor aside, there are a few (among many) very serious reasons why a distinction needs to be made between a comprehensive sexual education program that is “rights-based,” and one that is not. For one, 44 percent of victims of sexual assault are under 18, and 80 percent of victims are under thirty. The prevalence of rape, sexual assault and harassment in our culture is unacceptable, and one way to target the normalcy of these occurrences is through sexual education curriculums that not only teach young boys and girls the potential risks, but also engage our youth in critical discussions about victim blaming and equip them give and receive consent.
Even the most liberal sexual education programs fail to incorporate sexual orientation and gender roles into their curriculum. In a world where LGBT youth experience rampant bullying and higher suicide rates than their peers, it is important that we educate teens early about how sexuality varies among straight and queer individuals in an effort to increase understanding, tolerance and acceptance. Additionally, by limiting sexual education programs exclusively to heterosexual, reproductive sex, an entire population of youth is being marginalized in their ability to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections. If we want to teach truly comprehensive safe sex in our schools, we can’t limit our discussions to straight sex.
On the note of limiting discussions to straight, reproductive sex, sexual education programs that focus exclusively on reproduction and STDs are harmful to women. In your typical tutorial on reproduction, male pleasure is inherent to the discussion, as male orgasm is absolutely necessary for procreation. We are taught from a young age that sex involves a man penetrating a woman and then ejaculating, but female orgasm, and parts of the female anatomy that create pleasure – including the breasts and clitoris – are rarely discussed outside of a reproductive context.
Further, the selective focus on the reproductive aspects of sex fail to acknowledge alternatives to penetrative sex, including oral sex, which provide pleasure without risk of pregnancy, but also create a risk for sexually transmitted disease. By neglecting to address the role of pleasure in sex, we are raising a society of women (and men) who aren’t equipped to advocate for their sexual needs, and we are missing the opportunity to discuss and protect youth against additional health risks.
Comprehensive sexual education programs have continuously had a positive impact on our youth, and many of these programs discuss sexuality more holistically than others. Still, the taboo nature of sex in our society prevents us from discussing important issues regarding sexuality, and programs should be held accountable to a “rights-based” standard to ensure that we are cultivating a generation of tolerant, sex-positive, consenting adults.