Comprehensive sex education for kids and teens should be part of a broad and balanced curriculum. Here's what it should include.

By Fiona Tapp
Illustration by Emma Darvick

From the first time your young child asks you innocently where babies come from, to fielding questions about contraception and STIs from teens, parents are faced with the very real need to provide their children with the facts of life. But how much of this information should be coming from their teachers and what's the state of sex education in schools?

Although it might seem obvious that human sexuality and anatomy should be covered by most school health and science programs, actually only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in public schools. Nine states have absolutely no provision for sex education at all, including Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Texas, and Virginia.

Even when sex education is compulsory, the quality and content of the program varies widely from state to state and can encompass everything from comprehensive sex ed covering reproduction, puberty, contraception, and consent to simply pushing the "just say no" message.

Abstinence-Only Sex Education

Some states, including Florida and Alabama, have programs which stress abstinence first, which many experts believe is ineffective and even potentially harmful.

Erica Smith, M.Ed. Sexuality Educator and Consultant, from Philadelphia says "Keeping information about sex from young people teaches them that their bodies and sex are shameful. Giving them accurate and age-appropriate information better prepares them for a lifetime of mutually pleasurable and safe relationships."

Research also shows that abstinence-only programs do not work at preventing young people from experimenting sexually and can lead to unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections and diseases.

A 2006 report by the Guttmacher Institute found that the states with the highest rates of teen moms aged 15-19 were also those states where abstinence-only programs were encouraged and where comprehensive sex education including information on contraception was not part of the school curriculum.

"Young people are going to learn about sex somehow. It's unavoidable. Rather than have them learn from the media or their uninformed peers, a quality sexuality education curriculum can prepare them for real life," says Smith.

Even if abstinence-only education isn't stressed in the official state curriculum, it can still make its way into lessons, like in Nevada and North Dakota where the school boards receive state funding for abstinence before marriage sex education.

Utah goes even further with a law that prohibits the following topics from being taught at all: intercourse, homosexuality, contraception methods, and the advocacy of sex outside of marriage.

Comprehensive sex ed programs have the support of parents with Planned Parenthood reporting that 93-96% of parents want their kids to learn about sex in either middle or high school. The importance of sex education, therefore, cannot be overstated as a necessary and requested part of a complete and balanced school curriculum.

What Sex Education Covers Grade by Grade

If you live in one of the 24 states that require schools to teach sex education your child's experience could include the following programs:

Elementary School

  • In the state of Delaware, schools must teach 30 hours of health and family life education in every grade from Kindergarten to fourth grade. This increases to 35 hours in 5th and 6th grade. In Kindergarten programs this includes self-esteem lessons progressing towards instruction in healthy relationship dynamics by 6th grade.
  • In Maine, all students from Kindergarten to grade 12 follow the Family Life program which aims to teach them about human development and sexuality in age-appropriate ways.
  • Maryland's students learn health education from Kindergarten but mentions of human reproduction are not recommended until age 10-12.

Middle School

  • The sex education curriculum in Delaware increases in 7th and 8th grade up to 70 hours of instruction.
  • Between 7th-9th grades students in North Carolina must learn about STDs and contraception in "age-appropriate ways."
  • In Montana by the end of 8th-grade students are expected to have learned about the reproductive system but there are no specific teaching guidelines. By 4th Grade, they are expected to have learned about HIV/AIDS which is a difficult concept to grasp without proper anatomy and sexual health classes beforehand.
  • Although New Jersey requires all students to learn about same-sex relationships including units on tolerance and acceptance by the end of the 8th grade, they also have a "stress abstinence" law where schools are required to present abstinence as the only completely reliable method of birth control.

High School

  • In Delaware, High school students must receive a 1/2 credit in health education and each grade also has minimum hour requirements for drug and alcohol education.
  • Vermont has a comprehensive sex ed program mandated by state law which includes the following topics; human development, sexuality, reproduction, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and prevention, contraceptives, adolescent pregnancy, childbirth, adoption, and abortion.
  • In West Virginia, students learn about HIV and AIDS from 6th to 12th grade.
  • California's students must be taught about HIV and AIDS at least once in middle school and once in high school. In addition, if abstinence is taught, schools must also provide medically accurate information about contraceptive devices and methods.

How Things Have Changed

Changes to school sex curricula over the years have seen updates to include same-sex relationships, different contraceptive devices and methods, HIV and AIDS education, healthy relationships and the importance of consent.

Smith believes that with such a discrepancy in state requirements parents must supplement the sex ed programs at home with accurate information starting early. "Sexuality isn't something that begins in adolescence. It's important to begin by teaching your young children the proper words (like penis and vulva) for their body parts- no cutesy words. Teach them that no one is allowed to touch their bodies without permission, and they aren't allowed to force affection on people who don't want it. These lessons give children body awareness and agency," she says.

Smith stresses that children who can talk confidently and correctly about their body, and understand sex education facts and appropriate boundaries are less likely to be targeted by predators. "Children raised with accurate and honest information about sex and their bodies have an easier time in adolescence and adulthood when it comes to navigating sexual relationships," she says.

Elizabeth L. Jeglic Ph.D.; Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, and author of "Protecting Your Child From Sexual Abuse" agrees that the more young people understand about their body and sexuality the safer they are. "Teaching children about healthy sexual behavior and relationships empowers them. They'll be more likely to advocate for themselves and also to seek help and guidance should they find themselves in situations that they do not feel comfortable in," she says.

Because standards differ so much across the country, Jill Whitney, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Old Lyme, Connecticut believes it's important for parents to do their due diligence. "Few schools offer comprehensive, fact-based programs, which is the gold standard. Most schools offer only limited programs on puberty, or pregnancy prevention, which are better than nothing but tend to leave out key elements like sexual decision-making, healthy relationships, and pleasure. Do some research and talk with teachers at open houses. You want to know what your child will be taught so you can fill in any gaps," she says.

She also encourages sex-positive parents to make their views known to the school administration. "Often, the only parents that district leaders hear from are those who want very limited sex ed or, worse, abstinence-only sex ed. If you're one of the majority of parents who'd like kids to learn science-based, comprehensive sex ed, then speak up."

When you know that your child will be having a sexual health class, Whitney says it's important afterward to be on hand to answer any questions. "Remember that you are your child's primary sex educator. You're the one who's around every day when questions come up. You're the one who knows your child best. More important than [having] all the details is being willing to engage with your kid on such an important topic," she says.

Even in the most progressive states where fully comprehensive sex education programs are offered there are likely to be some gaps in your child's sexual health knowledge. Creating and maintaining an open dialogue will ensure that you are the first point of contact for their natural curiosity.

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