Moving the Ball Forward on Comprehensive Sex Education

As unbelievable as it sounds, some parts of our country are still teaching abstinence-only sex education in 2013. That’s why Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-C.A., recently reintroduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (REHYA), renewing their vow to provide comprehensive sex education to young Americans. This legislation provides grants and guidelines for education that will help young people make healthy, responsible decisions about their own sexual health. New STIs cost our country an estimated $16 billion a year, so this isn’t just smart policy—it’s fiscally sound, too.

The ACLU has been leading the charge for more inclusive, medically accurate, evidence-based sex education programs. Last August, the ACLU affiliates in California—along with two parents in the district, Academy of American Pediatrics District IX, and the Gay Straight Alliance Network—brought a case against the Clovis Unified School District under a state law that mandates that sex education in public schools be comprehensive, medically accurate, science-based and bias-free. The high schools in the district use materials that compare a woman who engages in premarital sex to a dirty shoe and suggest that men are unable to stop themselves once they become sexually aroused. Further, the schools use a textbook that does not include households headed by same-sex couples in a list of different types of families and defines marriage as "a lifelong union between a husband and a wife."

This is not the first instance of parents in California fighting for medically accurate, bias-free information about sexual health. In 2009, a Sonoma County parent became curious when his son came home from junior high school recounting how a guest speaker distributed a pledge to remain abstinent until marriage.  He contacted the ACLU, and the affiliate sent a letter to each of the 40 school districts in Sonoma County requesting that Free To Be, the group that spoke at the junior high school, be discontinued from spreading inaccurate information about condoms and contraception to Sonoma County students.

Young people today need comprehensive sex education more than ever.  While young people in the U.S. aged 15-25 make up only one-quarter of the sexually active population, they contract about half of the 19 million STIs annually, and about one in four new HIV infections is among youth aged 13 to 24 years.

Preteens and teenagers aren’t the only ones that will benefit from the more comprehensive sex education program supported by the REHYA; the bill expands the targeted population to young adults up to 24 years old. It also ensures that no federal funds are used for failed programs like those seen in Sonoma County and the Clovis Unified School District. The federal government shouldn’t provide financial support for programs that promote gender stereotypes, are insensitive to the needs of sexually active adolescents or LGBT youth, deliberately withhold information about STI prevention, or are medically inaccurate or have been proven to be ineffective.

We’ve made many great strides in recent years in the implementation of comprehensive sex education, and the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act would bring the quality of information and instruction into the 21st century.

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