How America’s Sex Ed Misses The Mark

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
My memories of sex ed live on a spectrum, from awkward to embarrassing to already-forgotten-because-I-blocked-out-middle-school-from-my-mind. Rarely do I remember these lessons being fun, let alone informative — and I was one of the lucky ones who attended a school that actually taught sex ed. So when the CDC reported last month that less than half of all high schools surveyed (and a mere fifth of middle schools) offered a satisfactory course on sex, I wasn't surprised. But I was disheartened when I read the CDC's 16 recommended topics for sex-ed classes, which left a lot to be desired: They focused almost entirely on abstinence and STI prevention. A particularly glaring omission from the CDC's list is consent. While there's mention of the value of communication and making one's own decisions, consent — actual consent — needs to be an explicit component of any responsible sex-ed syllabus. Some of the suggested guidelines are obvious contenders, like "effectiveness of condoms," "how to obtain condoms," and "how to correctly use a condom." But while another guideline encourages using multiple forms of birth control in order to prevent both STIs and unwanted pregnancies, nowhere in its list does the CDC highlight oral contraceptives or IUDs, in spite of their popularity and effectiveness. The majority of these guidelines speak to STI prevention, and some of them highlight issues that adults, well beyond student age, often struggle with, like, "communication and negotiation skills related to eliminating or reducing risk for HIV, other STDs, and pregnancy." This would hopefully lead to a classroom discussion around sharing your STI status with a partner. Unfortunately, other guidelines from the CDC have the potential to lead to problematic discussions around this particular issue, specifically in regards to the suggestion that educators emphasize the "importance of limiting the number of sexual partners." This could reinforce already-prevalent slut-shaming rhetoric. While it's comforting to see the CDC support healthy sexual relationships elsewhere in the list ("how to create and sustain healthy and respectful relationships"), it's easy to worry about the lack of guidelines for approaching these subjects sensitively and in a way that doesn't shame students. The current state of sex ed in America may seem bleak — hey, parents are now live-tweeting their kids' abysmal, abstinence-only lessons about sex — but it's important to remain hopeful that schools and the CDC will catch up and create a more inclusive, sex-positive educational environment for teens. That way, future generations won't have to look back at their sex-ed classes and cringe as much as I do.

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