Sex Education in America Needs a Complete Overhaul

By Lora Ivanova, CEO & Co-Founder, myLAB Box

When it comes to teens having sex, there’s a lot of baggage to unpack. Statistics show that teens are sexually active, but even more importantly, they are at a disproportionate risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancy. One reason for this imbalance is that adolescents don’t have the right education system and services for them to make healthy decisions.

Now sexual education works; however, many students are getting inaccurate or insufficient information. Students haven’t said anything beyond the basics or, worst of all; many don’t get any sexual education at all. With an overhaul of this system, we can provide adolescents with the means to be safer, healthier, and make smarter decisions for their own lives.

Teens Are Having Sex.

The truth is, teens are having sex. In a report by the National Center for Health Statistics, which was conducted between 2011-2015 stated that “More than half of U.S. teenagers have had sex by age 18 and virtually all sexually experienced teens (more than 99%) have used some form of birth control.” This means that by the time they are seniors in high school, most of them will be sexually active.

They Also see Significant Consequences From Sex

Although teens are having sex, they are typically not doing so in a healthy and protected way.

  • They are Contracting STIs at an Alarming Rate: Young people account for half of all new sexually transmitted infections. To put this in perspective, there are 20 million new STIs each year in the United States.
  • They are Getting Pregnant: While the teen birth rate has declined to a new low, it is still higher in the United States than in most other developed countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom.

Students Aren’t Getting Proper Sex Education.

Students aren’t getting a thorough formal sex education by trusted professionals about topics such as STIs, protection, and pregnancy.

  • Schools: As of 2014, only 24 states require that public schools provide sex education. Not only are these lessons not considers essential; neither is the accuracy of the information that is being provided. In fact, only 20 states require that sex education must be “medically, factually or technically accurate,” meaning that the lesson(s) must be based on information from “published authorities upon which medical professionals rely.”
  • Pediatricians: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, one in three adolescent patients did not receive any information about sex ed from their pediatrician. Those patients whose pediatrician did broach the subject reported that the conversation lasted less than 40 seconds. This is far from sufficient.

When adolescents don’t get the proper education from trained professionals such as teachers or doctors, their only source of information is often an inaccurate one. Many teens will turn to the Internet, researching topics on their own.

Unfortunately, when the Journal of Adolescent Health examined 177 sexual health websites in 2010, 46 percent of the websites addressing contraception, and 35 percent of those addressing abortion, contained inaccurate information.  Well-meaning parents may provide information about sexual health; however, their knowledge may also be inaccurate or incomplete.

Sex Education Should Be Well-Rounded

Sex education has been shown to help prevent and reduce the risks of adolescent pregnancy, HIV, and STIs. However, this can only be the case with thorough, accurate information and open dialog about these topics. Well-Rounded sex education provides teens with the information they need in order to make informed decisions about their sexual health.

These discussions should include:

Contraception: This should include, but not be limits to, condoms.  Adolescents should have a full understanding of all options for protecting themselves and practicing safe sex.  Additionally, research from the Journal of Adolescent Health shows that exclusively teaching abstinence-until-marriage programs do not help delay sex.  Instead, pairing information about abstinence with a comprehensive understanding of contraceptives does the trick.  So either way, contraceptive information is key.

Testing for HIV and other STIs: A lesson about STIs, how they are transmitted, how you can test for them is vital. Ignoring a potential problem isn’t a solution. With private at-home testing options, there should be no excuse for educators to skip this step, it only builds healthy habits for their futures as adults.

Consent: Teens of all genders should understand what a respectful relationship looks like.  Lessons should also stress that sexual assault can happen even when you know your attacker and that not saying “no” isn’t the same thing as actually saying “yes.”

Inclusivity: Sex ed should not only address the sexual health needs of heterosexual adolescents. Creating a supportive environment for all students can help them to explore and better understand gender identity and sexual orientation as well.

Open Dialog: Teens should feel comfortable having an open conversation with an informed adult, whether that person is a teacher, doctor, or parent. Letting them know that they can ask any questions may ease their concerns and clarify the confusion.

What Can We Do to Help? Have “The Talk”

Adults, parents, teachers, doctors, should all be talking to teenagers openly about sex ed. When there’s a disconnect between the information students, get at school, and what they can find on the Internet, mixed messaging makes it harder for teens to rely on the people they trust. We should encourage openness to both parents and teens to help them with the communication flow. The main goal is to help youth maintain positive self-esteem, work towards a healthy life, and make responsible decisions with their own bodies. We need to educate teens whenever and wherever possible.


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