America's "Just Say No" Sex-Ed Policy Is More Harmful Than You Think

This story was originally published on February 25, 2016.

Sara was the girl in college who helped troubleshoot for friends who had never orgasmed and who told women in her life who were squeamish about letting a guy go down on them, “You should let him, it’s awesome.” Now a 25-year-old musician living in Chicago, Sarah has always had “a really healthy relationship with sex,” she says, a fact that she credits, in part, to the sex education she received while growing up. “It was pretty thorough. I got all the basic info about how to be safe,” she recalls, “but also a baseline confidence and a set of expectations about how I want my body to be treated as a sexually active person.”

Compare that with Jennifer, a 31-year-old educator who grew up in Alabama. She learned about sex — or, rather, not having sex — in a ninth-grade class taught by her school football coach who doubled as a health teacher and tripled as the driver’s ed instructor. “He basically said, ‘Don’t do it. This is HIV, here are pictures of STDs, and if you don’t want to get pregnant, you have to abstain,’” says Jennifer. “Throughout all of this, he never said the word sex once and I certainly learned sex wasn’t something okay to do or talk about.” The legacy of that lesson, or non-lesson, lingered for years, she says. “Even when I was engaged for six years in my 20s, I couldn’t talk about sex or pleasure with my partner. I was so embarrassed about that, but I just couldn’t shake all the messages I had growing up.”

Both of these young women belong to the same generation and grew up attending public schools in the same country. Yet Jennifer’s and Sara’s experiences of sex education and the effect it would have on their lives could not be more different. In the United States, where education is (for the most part) a state and local responsibility, there is no continuity about how — or even if — sex education must be addressed.

“The landscape is essentially a patchwork of state and local policies that differ from state to state, county to county, and sometimes, school to school,” says Diana Rhodes, director of public policy for Advocates for Youth, an organization that champions comprehensive sex ed.
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I just couldn’t shake all the messages I had growing up.

As it stands today, only 23 states require that sex ed be taught at all — and just 19 require that the information be medically accurate, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. This means a full 37 states allow school districts to say whatever they want to about the effectiveness of condoms (or lack thereof), how to reduce the risk of STIs or pregnancy, and what happens if you decide to have sex. The same goes for broader questions of sexuality, such as LGBTQ issues. In short, the messages we get about sex while growing up have the capacity to profoundly shape our relationships and sex lives moving forward — and yet those messages are determined by a hodgepodge of federal, state, and local policies that often contradict scientific information about what keeps young people healthy.

In some situations, policies leave the door open for individual teachers to decide what values and information they want to pass on to their students. In eighth grade, Alice, 30, a music teacher who grew up in North Carolina, had a teacher who passed out marbles and assigned each color a different level of sexual activity, ranging from holding hands to having sex. She then asked each student pick a marble that represented their sexual experience, drop it in a jar, and tell the class how far they would go sexually. “I remember being really embarrassed — at that age, you don’t want to let on that you hadn’t done anything, but it was also really clear you shouldn’t choose the black marble [that represented intercourse],” she says.

By far, the majority of government funding for sex ed goes to abstinence-only programs. These programs are characterized by the “just say no” approach, typically offer no information about STI protection, birth control, or how to negotiate a healthy sexual relationship. Last year, the federal government increased funds for no-sex sex education by 55% to $85 million for 2016; over the past 25 years, the federal government has spent more than $1.5 billion on abstinence-only education.
Photographed by Jessica Nash.
As you may guess — or know from your own experience — telling teens not to have sex isn’t very effective. Decades of research has shown that abstinence-only programs just don’t work: They don’t keep people from having sex, they don’t reduce unplanned pregnancy, and they don’t reduce STI transmission. The stats back this up: Among young people, the U.S. currently has one of the highest rates of unplanned pregnancies and STIs in the developed world, according to the Guttmacher Institute. More than that, “The content of these programs inherently shame young people who are survivors of sexual assault, LGBTQIA, already sexually active, or even children of single-parent households,” says Jesseca Boyer, interim president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), a national sex ed advocacy group. (LGBTQIA=lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual.)

Just last week, President Obama proposed a budget for 2017 that cut all spending on abstinence-only programs. But the Republican-controlled Congress is refusing to even look at the president’s budget, something that the House Budget Committee hasn't done since 1975 and the Senate Budget Committee hasn’t done ever. So despite Obama’s best efforts, it looks like funding for abstinence-only education will live on. On the other side of the coin, says Boyer, “There are no funding streams dedicated for comprehensive sexuality education and funding for programs that support comprehensive sexuality education is constantly under threat.”

In contrast to abstinence-only programs, comprehensive sex education — which covers a wide variety of topics, including STIs, contraception, communication, healthy relationships, and sexual orientation — have been shown to increase condom and contraception use.

“If done right,” says Martha Kempner, an author who writes about sexual health for RH Reality Check, “it can be the building block of sexual health moving forward. It can help young people understand and protect their bodies, their emotions, and their relationships.”

despite Obama’s best efforts, it looks like funding for abstinence-only education will live on.

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Larissa, 29, says she had a “maddeningly thorough” sex education growing up. “One of the first things I learned was how to put on a condom on and that condoms are the best way to prevent everything. It was drilled into me that you have to pinch the tip and roll it on or it might break. It’s funny, the guy I’m dating now had abstinence-only sex ed and was only taught about sex polluting you. I was surprised he wasn’t taught the correct way to put on a condom.”

And that’s just the tip of that condom as far as the potential damage abstinence-only sex education can lead to. “It can take years to correct misinformation about simple health topics and overcoming the messages of fear and shame can be even harder,” says Kempner. Jennifer, the educator from Alabama, describes this experience exactly. Even after receiving messages in her gender studies class in college that sex should be an enjoyable experience, she had a hard time shaking the fear and shame she had been taught to feel about it back in high school. “I would remember all the messages I had growing up. When I finally got a sex-positive message, it almost felt too late. I knew I should feel less shame and embarrassment around sex, but I had no idea how.”

That’s never been a problem for Sara, the Chicago musician. She says her thorough sex education in a Chicago public school has served her well long after high school. She recently broke up with an older man whom she respected and admired, but who kept giving her attitude when she wanted him to use a condom. “Even if I’m dating someone I’m into, I still have the confidence to say, ‘I want you, but I don’t want this,’” she says. “If I wasn’t raised in an environment where sex was talked about so openly, I don’t think I would have had the important conversations you have later in life with your friends — when you learn how to respect yourself sexually. In that way, your sex ed is always continuing.”

The gap between what we learned in sex ed and what we're learning through sexual experience is big — way too big. So we're helping to connect those dots by talking about the realities of sex, from how it's done to how to make sure it's consensual, safe, healthy, and pleasurable all at once. Check out more here.
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