While there are countless federal programs to promote sexual health and education across America, there is no mandated federal curriculum or law enforcing adequate instruction for teenagers. In fact, teen pregnancy, abortion, and birth rates in the United States remain some of the highest in the industrialized world— one in four girls between the ages of thirteen and nineteen will become pregnant, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Perhaps this is because the majority of states provide parents the opportunity to opt out of their child’s attendance of a sexual health course. Fewer than half of all states require public schools to teach sexual education at all. It is unacceptable that students do not receive a comprehensive sexual education to prepare them to conduct their own lives appropriately. If a parent wishes to educate his or her child personally, he or she should maintain that right, but there exists a basic level of education that should not be denied any young adult. If we do not change our country’s current standards, millions of adolescents risk receiving biased or inadequate education regarding contraception, orientation, protection, personal relationships, and overall sexual health.
Currently, 23 percent of sexual education programs in public schools across the United States are strictly abstinence-only, according to ABC News. However, this abstinence-only system fails to address the reality that many young adults are already sexually active. Students taught through such programs do not receive proper or any instruction on how to manage their bodies appropriately. While abstinence may be part of instruction, it should only be done so if listed as one of many options, including birth control and contraception. Sex should not be treated as a taboo topic, nor should adolescents be shamed for wanting to learn about sex or have relationships. This teaching does not stop the student population from having sex, and without educating young adults about Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), consent, and birth control, it makes the sex that teenagers do have less safe. Furthermore, it reinforces a common expectation that youth should not explore their sexuality.
As noted above, about one in four teenage girls will become pregnant before turning twenty. Perhaps this is caused by the fact that only eighteen states require that there be information about contraception when Sex Ed is taught. Without providing this knowledge, we are endangering youth by allowing them to remain ignorant of proper ways to protect themselves. Basic facts about protection should be distributed to all high schoolers to ensure their safety and prevent pregnancy and STIs, without an ‘opt-out’ feature.
Even in states with classes instructing students on how to have safe sex and teach students about STIs, very rarely do courses include units regarding identity, orientation, and self-esteem. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only twelve states require lessons about sexual orientation. Sexual education should be more than just instructing what can go where and how to protect oneself from various infections. It’s not enough to tell students they will ‘know when they are ready and should wait till then.’ Teenagers should be comfortable having discussions surrounding their gender and sexuality, to better know themselves and gain tolerance of others. More importantly, students should be taught that it’s okay to have questions and discuss all aspects of their sexuality, and they should have an outlet to do so.
Because states design their own educational standards, it’s naturally hard to have nationwide improvements in sexual education. Therefore, there are essentially fifty different policies. Some argue that this is an undeniable right of the states, but it does not mean that we should accept unrealistic and inadequate sexual education. States that already have sexual education programs should improve upon their current curriculum by more thoroughly covering units about STIs, contraception, identity, orientation and healthy relationships. Those without sexual education requirements are unfairly denying adolescents what should be common knowledge about health and life.
Consent, safety, and sexuality are issues that all young Americans should be educated about. Doing so would ensure the safety of not just individuals, but also an entire generation. Each state’s constitution promises access to free public education. This right, guaranteed by the states, should include the right to be educated about one’s own body and health through a comprehensive sexual education course.