Sex-ed must be “medically accurate and complete”

Photo by Todd Wiseman

As part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, Congress significantly changed sex education requirements for the nation. The new educational emphasis is on “sexual risk avoidance,” and the content is enormously different from the prior law, which encouraged abstinence-only sex-ed.

Sex-ed now must be “medically accurate and complete,” and so arguably can no longer stop at “don't do it.” By contrast, the prior law's "exclusive purpose" was abstinence education, which prevented schools that accepted government funding from teaching family planning and disease prevention.

The new law opens the door for all Texas schools to provide comprehensive sex education or, for those who are not ready for such a change, to move from abstinence-only to abstinence-plus-marital education as promoted by Treble-Up. This grassroots organization is dedicated to reducing teen pregnancy in Texas and provides a free booklet on family planning in a marital context. 

The prior law erroneously stated that abstinence is the “only certain” way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections or STIs. It completely failed to recognize that there are other ways of contracting STIs and that rapes sometimes happen, even when one chooses abstinence. The new law, by contrast, makes no such missteps. 

The new risk avoidance program still emphasizes avoiding non-marital sexual activity, and says the education should be age and culturally appropriate. Topics that to be covered include:

 (A) The holistic individual and societal benefits associated with personal responsibility, self-regulation, goal setting, healthy decision making and a focus on the future.

 (B) The advantage of refraining from non-marital sexual activity in order to improve the future prospects and physical and emotional health of youth.

(C) The increased likelihood of avoiding poverty when youth attain self-sufficiency and emotional maturity before engaging in sexual activity.

 (D) The foundational components of healthy relationships and their impact on the formation of healthy marriages and safe and stable families.

 (E) How other youth risk behaviors, such as drug and alcohol usage, increase the risk for teen sex.

 (F) How to resist and avoid, and receive help regarding, sexual coercion and dating violence, recognizing that even with consent teen sex remains a youth risk behavior.

The program also specifies that information provided on contraception should be medically accurate, complete and ensure that students understand that contraception offers risk reduction but not risk elimination. And the education can't include demonstrations, simulations or distribution of contraceptive devices. 

Texas law still states that abstinence is “100 percent effective” in preventing pregnancy and STIs, but Texas schools that continue to propagate this myth may not be able to partake of the $75 million in funding provided under the new budget because the law now requires sex-ed to be “medically accurate.” Since there are many ways of contracting STIs besides sex and babies can even be born with STIs, this statement is clearly not “medically accurate,” although it appears in nearly all school materials. Nor can stopping at “don't do it” be considered “complete,” since even a virgin can have an STI. A medically accurate and complete education must teach a young adult how to avoid the spread of disease.   

All in all, the new law is an improvement over the old abstinence-only program, which was both factually incorrect and prevented participating schools from moving beyond merely saying “don't do it.” Texas, the state with the highest repeat teen pregnancy rate in the nation, should welcome this new law requiring “medically accurate and complete” sex-ed.

Tamsen Valoir

Molecular biologist, patent lawyer