Back to News & Commentary

Let's Get REAL About Sex Ed

Allie Bohm,
Policy Counsel,
Share This Page
March 18, 2009

(Originally posted on Feministing.)

I did not have a sex education. I graduated from high school in 2003, when Congress was in the thick of its love affair with scientifically-discredited and constitutionally-questionable abstinence-only programming, which have received more than a billion dollars in federal funding since 1996. In fact, at a conference on sex ed last month, I was so disturbed by my inability to recall whether sexuality education ever came up in my school that I called my brother, who graduated from high school in 2006, to see if he remembered any such classes. He confirmed my recollection that our school did not teach sex ed.

I guess I should be glad that my school district did not teach abstinence-only and proud that my home state, New York, has since rejected Title V abstinence-only funds, concluding that they are a bad investment and counter to the interests of its students. After all, my peers and I were spared “education” that would have, according to a Congressionally-mandated study, had no impact on our decision to initiate or delay sex, but would have made us less likely to use condoms if we did decide to have sex. We did not have to hear about exaggerated condom failure rates. We were not subjected to a litany of gender stereotypes meant to color our future sexual relationships. (“Miniskirts turn boys on; if you wear one, you’re asking to be raped.” “A wife must always please her husband, or he’ll cheat on her.”) I did not have to listen to presentations that would have stigmatized my peers from single-parent families or my lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender friends by insisting that sex is only acceptable within the context of legal (read: heterosexual) marriage. Nor did I have to endure programs suggesting that my sexually active classmates were somehow dirty and impure. I was not the captive audience of classes that violated the separation between church and state by promoting a religion that was not my own.

But, what I did have in place of sexuality education was deafening silence. A year of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) taught me 101 different ways to say no to drugs, but no one gave me a way to say, “I’m not ready to have sex yet.” The closest my school came to sexuality education was an annual play featuring HIV-positive actors aimed at dispelling myths about HIV/AIDS, reducing stigma, and raising awareness of how one could contract HIV/AIDS and that condoms could be used to reduce the risk. But, no one told me about sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) besides HIV/AIDS, and no one taught me how to say, “Okay, I’m ready to have sex, but can you please use a condom?” And, certainly, no one explained to me how, if I wanted to have sex with another woman, to do so safely.

Some people say that sex ed is best left to the family. But, sex is not something all parents are comfortable talking about or equipped with the information to discuss intelligently. Even in families with healthy levels of communication, there’s the icky factor. (“That’s my little girl!” on the parents’ side, and “Okay, I know Mom and Dad did it at least once, but do I have to think about it?!” on the kids’.) And, then there’s the question of whether parents have medically-accurate, up-to-date information. (“Hey, Mom, when was the last time you used a condom?” And, “do you know what Implanon is?”) And that’s to say nothing of families where, for whatever reason, teenagers do not feel comfortable talking to their parents. Those teens need sex ed too.

Others feel that sex ed is best left to the church or other places of worship. But, not everyone goes to church. And, even among those who do, there’s a range of religious reactions to sex and reproductive health, from sex is a sacrament to sex is a sin, from contraceptive-friendly religions to denominations that believe that sex-is-only-for-procreation-so-why-on-earth-would-you-use-a-condom? Access to medically-accurate, age-appropriate sexuality information should not be dependent upon what faith one adheres to or how comfortable one’s parents are discussing sex.

Effective, age-appropriate, medically accurate sex ed should be a part of the school curriculum in order to ensure that all students receive the information they need to make healthy decisions – and that includes understanding how to say “I’m going to wait” – and to keep themselves safe when and if they do choose to become sexually active.

Fortunately, yesterday, Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) again introduced the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, which would create the first ever federal funding stream for comprehensive sexuality education programs. These programs would provide medically accurate and age-appropriate information to help students delay sex, and to give them the tools they need to protect themselves when they do decide to become sexually active. The programs funded would be designed to reach all students, regardless of religion, sexual orientation, family composition, or whether or not they are already sexually active. The ACLU urges Congress to pass REAL in order to provide students with the sex ed they REALly need.

But it’s going to take some time to get there. In the meantime, we need to get rid of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Go to our Action Center and tell President Obama to zero-out funding for abstinence-only in his FY2010 budget, because the only thing worse than no sex ed is “education” that’s inaccurate, misleading, and stigmatizes vast swaths of the student body.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page