Schools Are Banning Sex Ed Lessons and It's Harming Our Children

Conservative leaders are blaming sex education for "grooming" and "sexualizing" children. In reality, inclusive and comprehensive sex education is an important tool in sexual abuse prevention. A health and sexuality educator and author shares what parents should know.

Rear view of schoolgirl raising her arm to answer the question in the classroom.
Photo: Getty/Drazen Zigic

As a health and sexuality educator, I am pretty familiar with the concept of grooming. In fact, during conversations about Internet safety, I often remind students to look out for adults online who just seem too nice, or who are insistent on meeting in real life, or who share porn, in case they are trying to set up a young person for a sexual encounter.

But these days, if a lot of conservatives are to be believed, grooming refers not to adult predators, but rather to adult teachers who dare discuss anything to do with a very broad, and very vague definition of sexuality.

For example, Fox News host Laura Ingraham recently asked her viewers, "When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centers for gender identity radicals?" Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted that "Democrats are the party of killing babies, grooming and transitioning children, and pro-pedophile politics." In early March, the press secretary for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis tweeted that anyone who didn't back the state's Don't Say Gay bill, which is generally understood to prohibit the discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in younger grades, was "probably a groomer or at least you don't denounce the grooming of 4-8-year-old children." And when he ultimately did sign the bill into law, DeSantis claimed that the liberal politicians and activists who had fought against the law "support sexualizing kids in kindergarten."

Unfortunately, these folks aren't outliers. Similar rhetoric is being used to garner support for comparable laws proposed in at least a dozen other states, and such justifications are being used in to attack sex education in traditionally liberal places including New Jersey and Maryland.

But despite inflammatory language, there is absolutely no truth to any of the claims. In fact, far from "sexualizing" or "grooming" kids, offering inclusive, comprehensive sex education is one of the most protective things we can do for them, and it is an important tool in sexual abuse prevention.

Sex Education Prevents Misinformation

As Laura Palumbo, from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, explains, when young people get accurate information about sexuality from reliable sources like doctors, educators, or their parents, who all need to be willing to have honest and inclusive conversations, they are more likely to be critical in their consumption of media. "There is a great likelihood that young people are already exposed to or already consuming porn," she says. "And in absence of comprehensive sexuality education, a lot of the information they can get about sex will come from that." This can be a significant problem if teens then view porn, or even mainstream media's depiction of sex, as an instruction manual and not as a fantasy.

Most comprehensive sex education programs address the seven national sex education K-12 standards. These include anatomy and physiology, puberty and adolescent development, identity, pregnancy and reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, healthy relationships, and personal safety.

Developmental sex educator Tracie Gilbert, Ph.D., explains that "[Comprehansive sex education] should hold space for the learner in context, acknowledging the communities that learners exist within and the ways that those communities' historical experiences inform how they engage with sex ed material." Like many in the field, she also stresses the importance of assuring medical accuracy in sex education, something that unfortunately does not always occur, especially in programs with an abstinence-only mandate. She cites establishing abortion as a public health issue rather than a moral one as an example of this.

Dr. Gilbert cautions against using medical language in a way that can reinforce harmful myths about people who are intersex, transgender, asexual, and or who have disability experiences. This can arise when educators make broad statements and say things like, "All girls will get their periods at some point in puberty." That might seem like a neutral statement, but for transgender girls, intersex girls, or girls with certain medical conditions, this just may not be the case. It also excludes transgender boys and nonbinary students who may menstruate.

Curriculum details will vary, but in my experience as a sex educator and the author of the book, Good Sexual Citizenship (which looks at how we can create sexually safer and healthier communities), truly inclusive sex education is trauma-informed and anti-racist. It celebrates racial and gender diversity and positively represents all genders, sexual orientations, and abilities.

That's something Dr. Gilbert echoes. "A truly inclusive comprehensive sex education program includes using stories and concept examples from communities that aren't always represented, including students of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, religious minorities, people with disabilities, neurodivergent individuals, and more," she says. Additionally, it does not separate students by gender, since teaching different classes for boys and girls can reinforce gender stereotypes and exclude those children who are trans, nonbinary, or gender expansive.

Ellen Friedrichs, sex educator and the author of Good Sexual Citizenship

Offering inclusive, comprehensive sex education is one of the most protective things we can do for kids, and it is an important tool in sexual abuse prevention.

— Ellen Friedrichs, sex educator and the author of Good Sexual Citizenship

Teaching Healthy Relationships Must Start Early

One of the tactics used in attacks on sex education is to claim that the subjects being discussed are not age-appropriate. According to Nora Gelperin, the director of Sex Ed & Training for Advocates for Youth, the average adult is not familiar with what is age and developmentally appropriate for students to learn in sex education and it's easy to become scared when you are told material is harmful. "[Parents] are being targeted by a disinformation campaign and are confused and scared that sex education teaches graphic sexual information when it does not," Gelperin says. "Just like we start by teaching students the alphabet before we teach them to read, we also need to start teaching students the basic building blocks of respectful relationships and consent if we expect them to make good decisions to safeguard their health and well-being now and into the future."

Ensuring that material is covered appropriately is something that most sexuality educators take very seriously. It is also something that is required by 26 states and Washington, D.C.

The SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change guidelines for teaching about healthy relationships are one example of what that can look like. The guidelines for children in kindergarten to second grade include learning how to identify different kinds of family structures, demonstrate ways to show respect for different types of families, and describe the characteristics of a friend. High schoolers, on the other hand, learn the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy romantic and/or sexual relationships, the range of ways to express affection within healthy relationships, and the meaning of sexual consent and its implications for sexual decision-making.

Public Rhetoric is Creating a False Narrative

In reality, those arguing against sex education are actually the ones sexualizing kids in the very way they accuse others of doing. Just think about it: when young kids talk about gender identity and sexual orientation, they aren't focusing on sexual behaviors. Rather, they are typically thinking about identity and family. It is the adult alarmists who are making these topics about sex. This doesn't only appear in relation to LGBTQIA+ issues. As author Jessica Valenti wrote recently, there are many initiatives supported by conservatives that overtly sexualize young people. These include "purity balls where young girls are expected to pledge their virginity to their fathers, abstinence-only education classes that teach children that boys have uncontrollable sexual urges, or even the bizarre insistence that cancer-preventing vaccines will make girls promiscuous."

Sex Ed Bans Harm Children

In addition to the harms that will befall LGBTQIA+ kids and families when sex education is censored and their identities erased as something shameful, we know from decades of research that banning sex education harms children from all walks of life. Consider some of the demonstrated impacts:

We also know that sex education can help young people learn about relationships and red flags to look out for. As Crystal Justice from the National Domestic Violence Hotline explains, healthy relationships have basic but essential elements including respect, communication, trust, boundaries, honesty, and equality. She says, "Coercion into sexual contact or interactions is extremely damaging for young people—ignoring consent, pressuring for sex, refusing to use contraception, or sabotaging birth control are just some examples of sexual abuse. Giving young people accurate and comprehensive information empowers them to make informed decisions about their health and relationships."

Sex Ed Promotes Safer Sex Practices

Here's something else opponents of these programs ignore: teens who receive comprehensive sex education have been found to have sex later than their peers who receive either no sex education at all or abstinence-only education (a program that teaches that the only acceptable place to have sex in a cross-gender marriage). Plus, young people who have taken comprehensive sex ed are more likely to practice safer sex if they do become sexually active. As Dr. Gilbert says, "Ultimately misinformation and omission sets students up to make avoidable mistakes, which runs counter to the whole point of education: to equip learners with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they need to make empowered, intelligent decisions about the real-time circumstances they will face in their environment as they grow up."

Sex education is certainly not the only subject under fire these days. But like the self-proclaimed parents' rights activists who are trying to shut down conversations about race and racism or ban books, the voices accusing teachers who discuss gender or sexuality of pedophilia can be loud ones. Gelperin points to the fact that some of the most vocal opponents of local sex education programs turn out to not even have children in the school districts they are criticizing. "The vast majority of parents, regardless of their political party or personal values, want comprehensive sex education to be taught in public schools," she says. "Our schools and our students need parents to stand up for what science and evidence tell us works to protect kids, namely sex education. We need to be strong in our convictions, continue to show up, and speak out in support of what our students need and deserve, which is accurate, complete, and inclusive sex education."

As a parent myself, and as an educator in this field, that is something I can absolutely get behind.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles