The Lack of Sex Ed in the United States is a Major Problem—Here’s Why

Published: December 31, 2020Updated: December 20, 2022

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: Your introduction to sex, pregnancy, and pleasure came from a ragtag combination of vague parental stammerings, that one girl at school with an older brother who passed along anything he told her, and The Care and Keeping of You (The iconic American Girl book). 

While it makes for funny stories to look back on (“wait, you thought babies came from WHERE?!”), a lack of comprehensive sex ed actually puts youth and beyond at risk for misinformation, sexually transmitted diseases, and unplanned pregnancies. Here’s why it’s so important to promote accurate, inclusive sexual education.

First, let’s look at the current state of sex ed.

Sex education laws and regulations are determined by states and local legislators, so they can vary widely based on region and culture. As of October 2020*, only 30 states and the District of Columbia require public schools teach sex education, 28 of which mandate both sex education and HIV education. Because these laws can vary so much, the state of sex ed in the U.S. is unstable, and the information shared is often unreliable and at odds with educational materials shared by sexual health organizations (like Planned Parenthood)*. 

On a federal level, the government has spent over $2 billion since 1982 on “abstinence only” sex education. While these programs took a brief hiatus during the Obama years, they came back in 2015 under the new branding of “sexual risk avoidance” programs, with a new avenue of federal funding to help promote them. 

So, what are the consequences?

Without a unified philosophy on sexual education, teens bear the brunt of the results. Here are a few concrete ways a lack of comprehensive sex ed impacts teenagers in the U.S..

1. A higher teen birth rate than other countries

Good news first: Teen pregnancy rates* hit an all-time low in the U.S. in 2016, although the U.S. does have higher rates of teen pregnancies than most other industrialized nations*.

Now for the bad news. A 2008 report* that looked at comprehensive sex ed found that when sex education covered contraception, teens had a lower risk of pregnancy than when they received abstinence-only or no sex education. So in other words, that “abstinence until marriage” approach that the national government promotes has little to no impact on whether a teen gets pregnant or increases their sexual activity.

2. More STDs than other age groups

People ages 15-24 make up about a fourth of the American population, but they accounted for nearly half of all new STDs reported in 2013*. Reading between the lines, that makes medical providers very suspicious about the quality of sex ed being provided. 

3. A dangerous focus on straight, cis sex education

News flash: It’s 2021, and some states* still prohibit teachers from discussing sexual orientation in class. Furthermore, less than 5% of LGBTQ+ students have had health classes that included positive representations of LGBTQ+ related topics, and no states currently mandate discussion of gender identity in sex education, according to a national survey.⁣ So, maybe it’s not a coincidence that teens who identify as LGBTQ+ can be at higher risk* of contracting STDs. 

And even more importantly, by excluding LGBTQ+ topics from sex ed, schools are fostering an unsafe, unwelcoming environment for students. In states that prohibit discussions of sexual orientation, LGBT+ teens often have less access to relevant school health services, and they have less support* from their teachers, fellow students, and community in general.

The current state of sex education is unacceptable and not nearly enough is being done to improve this. We understand the importance of sex education which is why we created education platforms like The Simple Source to help fill these gaps. 

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