Although the United States does not enforce a nationwide requirement for sex education in public schools, the majority of states have their own legislation outlining how “family life” will be taught, if at all. Most of these programs range from bad to worse, meaning their ability to provide students with the necessary knowledge and skills to make healthy, informed sexual decisions is virtually nonexistent. This means many young people in America do not receive a comprehensive education to protect themselves from teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted sexual experiences. In part, this is because only 29 states and the District of Columbia require sex education, and only 37 states mandate HIV education. Of those states, 17 require said “sex education” to be considered “medically accurate.”
To make matters worse, non-conforming sexuality is almost never mentioned. In 2017, only nine states are inclusive in regards to sexual orientation, while another five — Oklahoma, Alabama, Arizona, South Carolina and Texas — actually discourage non-heterosexual relationships completely. The remaining 36 states don’t address sexual orientation at all. This becomes detrimental to society when considering the effects it has on the physical and mental well-being of America’s youth. They are receiving outdated and politically-motivated sex education programs that are used to further the careers of politicians rather than their own safety.
When identifying who is impacted most by the lack of comprehensive sex education, a clear trend becomes visible — states that limit their programs to abstinence instead of promoting knowledge on safe practices are disproportionately affected. It comes as no surprise that these are also the states in which access to contraception is becoming increasingly difficult, as several attempts have been made to ban reproductive health programs such as Planned Parenthood. Some of these states include Alabama and Alaska — the two most historically Republican states in the nation — and the majority of states existing in what is commonly deemed the “Bible Belt.”
These states are textbook examples of conservative sex education policy in practice. Policymakers in historically red-states such as Alaska, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi have been known to condemn “human rights values for all individuals” conducive to comprehensive sex education along with basic rules for consent and contraception use. As a result, these states have the highest rate of STDs per capita. For example, chlamydia occurs at a rate of approximately 800 cases per 100,000 people in Alaska and approximately 745 cases per 100,000 people in Louisiana. This is over 200 cases above the national average of 540 per 100,000, which is an all time high for the United States.
Additionally, these policies have also stigmatized contraception by providing minimal knowledge and access. Combined with an unrealistic sex education program based on abstinence, students begin having sex before knowing how to make informed and safe decisions. Unfortunately, this means these states also have the highest rate of teenage pregnancy, with states such as Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi accounting for some of the highest rates per capita in the nation. To break this down, Louisiana and Arkansas both require abstinence-centered sex education programs — that is, if they are taught at all.
Because programs are not mandated in either of these states, schools may choose to opt in or out of teaching these courses. Kentucky and Mississippi, on the other hand, do have state-mandated programs. However, they are severely lacking. In Mississippi, localities must teach abstinence-only programs and receive permission from the state government to include information on contraception. Meanwhile, Kentucky must only include information on abstinence without any requirement for teaching its students about contraception.
Furthermore, the lack of comprehensive sex education programs also means students lack institutionalized knowledge on what it means to consent to sexual activity. This can be seen in Alaska, whose per capita rate of reported rape is approximately three times the national average. Unfortunately, these statistics do not come as a shock, as without comprehensive sex education classes, students are not taught about the nuances of consent, and therefore, could not be expected to know them.
Ultimately, the bottom line is that America’s children deserve to receive a comprehensive sexual education program, and it should not be up for political discussion. The benefits children accrue from sex education far outweighs the political and moral agenda against these programs. Therefore, sexual education programs must be updated to fit the society we currently inhabit sooner rather than later. This includes ending abstinence-based education, making all programs sexual orientation inclusive and stepping away from politics long enough to see the crisis it is causing in our country. Our children not only need it, they are depending on it, and it is up to the lawmakers of this nation to make it happen.
Hailey Yowell is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.