“We must know that if we want to have a sexually healthy society, it’s about education, education, education,” says Joycelyn Elders, MD.
With 9.5 million teens obtaining a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and 750,000 becoming pregnant per year in the United States, it is no wonder why Elders asserts that comprehensive sexuality education is the key to a sexually healthy world. In order to help remedy this, Elders teamed up with the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Program in Human Sexuality (PHS) to advance sexual health education not only in America, but globally. Together, Elders and PHS established the Joycelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health Education. The Elders Chair will work with PHS to create comprehensive life-long sexual education curricula, increase the number of health care providers trained in sexual health care, and expand scientific research in sexuality education. However, Elders will not hold the chair position herself, but will still be involved with the program. Elders currently gives on-campus lectures, including her presentation entitled, “Revolutionizing Our Sexually Dysfunctional Society: Are Americans Ready to Talk, Listen, and Learn?”
Perhaps Americans are ready to talk, listen, and learn.
In 2008, the California State Board of Education developed and passed California’s (CA) first set of health education standards, which included comprehensive sex education. Under this Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Act, K-12 sex education programing must cover topics about STDs, contraception, condoms, pregnancy, and violence. Furthermore, instruction and materials must be age-appropriate, medically accurate and objective, and representative for students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and pupils with disabilities. Sounds great, right?
If you take a closer look, CA is still coming up short. CA received the rating of C+ in Young People’s Sexual Health from Amplify, a project of Advocates for Youth, a well-known organization that champions efforts to help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health. Why? Because compared to the national average, CA has a high teen pregnancy rate (15th highest in the nation), while its AIDS rate tracks with national rates and STI rates only slightly lower than the national rate. Although this act has brought CA a monumental step closer to achieving the goal of a sexually healthy youth, there is more room for improvement.
You might be wondering, “Why only California? What about other states? If the goal is to have a sexually healthy nation, then why aren’t there national standards for comprehensive sexuality education?” Well, that’s because the bill is still sitting in Congress. On November 2nd, 2011, Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Barbara Lee told the federal government to stand up and participate in the legalization of comprehensive sex education for the nation: they introduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (H.R.3324). This act lays out a comprehensive, age-appropriate, and holistic vision for sex education policy in the U.S.
This act recognizes that young people have a right to sexual health information–the first federal legislation ever to have done so. Through the federal government, this act creates national standards for sex education that have profoundly positive effects on the sexual health of American youth. First, it prepares young people to make informed, responsible, and healthy decisions about relationships and sexual health. Second, this act also includes grants for comprehensive sex education programs for adolescents and young adults in institutions of higher education. Third, it requires all funded programs to be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and heterosexual youth and meet the needs of young people who are and are not sexually active. Finally, this act highlights the importance of and provides resources for teacher training. (Other highlights not mentioned in this article. See full description here.)
To assert further that a national standard for sex education can and should be adopted, in January 2012, Future of Sex Education (FoSE) Project launched the National Sexuality Education Standards for K-12, which set the new gold standard for sex education in America. Founded by Advocates for Youth, Answer, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SEICUS), FoSE aims to create a national dialogue about the future of sex education and to promote the institutionalization of comprehensive sex education in public schools. Moreover, FoSE developed these standards to address the inconsistent implementations of sexuality education nationwide and the limited time allocated to teaching the topic. Hence, having national standards throughout schooling provides students with the knowledge needed to make the right decisions about their sexual health, no matter where they happen to live in the U.S., in a way they can understand and utilize as they go through different developmental stages.
As California State Board of Education, the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, and FoSE have shown, comprehensive sexuality education is an ideal that can be reached not only on state levels, but also on a national level. Yet, as everyone can see, much more work still needs to be done to achieve the positive sexual health outcomes that other industrialized nations with already established national comprehensive sex education standards realize, such as the Netherlands.
Americans need to stand up for their sexual rights and demand the comprehensive sex education they deserve from their communities, schools, families, and government. Many notable people and organizations have worked hard to provide us the research, curriculum, and discourse on behalf sexual education and sexual freedom, so now Americans need to take these tools and fight for what is rightfully theirs and what Elders dedicated her life to: a sexually healthy nation.