My experience with sex ed in public school was terrible. It was held in the worst-smelling gym imaginable, and every five minutes during the uncomfortable presentation, someone would giggle or groan. But the worst part is that it taught me nothing about sex. Sure, I learned what a uterus looks like, but I didn’t know the mechanics of sex, how to prevent disease or how to avoid teen pregnancy. In fact, most of my sex education came from the internet, as I googled terms the kids at my middle school threw around.
As you might guess, the internet was a less-than-great teacher. Not only was I inundated with graphic imagery and annoying pop-ups, but I was also overwhelmed by the amount of information I was seeing. It was only after a long talk with my parents that I understood what I needed to know about sex. I’m lucky: not all kids have parents who are willing to discuss sex with them in a non-judgmental way. Instead of awkward conversations or misguided online searches, schools must provide a comprehensive sex education that addresses all students’ questions openly and honestly.
Many sex education programs in the United States preach an abstinence-only approach, which is only helpful if you want a bunch of pregnant teenagers on your hands. It just doesn’t work. For example, Texas adopted an abstinence-only policy early and spent more money and time than any other state on abstinence-only programs. As a result, one would expect teen pregnancy rates to be lower, but Texas has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.
Many supporters of abstinence-only sex education think that telling kids not to have sex until marriage will indeed prevent premarital sex. This viewpoint is rooted in conservative beliefs, but what supporters don’t acknowledge is that public schools aren’t religious institutions. Furthermore, women and men’s median ages at first sex are 17.8 and 18.1, respectively. This is much lower than the median age of first marriage, meaning that young people are having sex before marriage. From a developmental perspective, teens also need more support with making good long-term decisions.
Of the copious abstinence-only sex education programs available, Promoting Health Among Teens and Heritage Keepers are the only ones to have any studies that show positive results. The programs Healthy Futures and Positive Potential show mixed results in reducing sexual activity. None of these four programs, however, show any evidence of affecting other important statistics like the use of contraceptives, the chance of getting an STI or teen pregnancy rates. On the other hand, comprehensive programs that go beyond the abstinence-only approach do account for these concerns.
A major setback to understanding effective sex education occurred in August 2017, when the Trump administration canceled funding for 81 projects that are a part of the TPP Program. The grants ended two years early in June 2018. Those programs could have provided us with more data about the effectiveness of sex ed programs, but the money that was invested has now been wasted.
My sex ed experience in a Texas school prepared me and my classmates for years of confusion, but with Austin ISD adopting a new sex ed program, we’re making significant strides forward. A program that sticks kids in a gym to learn about everything except sex is not a program that can last. If Texas schools continue to push abstinence-only programs instead of listening to the research, our children will continue to suffer from a lack of information.
This op-ed as part of a workshop hosted by Austin Bat Cave, a local nonprofit that provides free writing workshops to teens and young adults in Austin.