The title of an Oct. 23 News-Miner article, “School district puts racy sex ed materials on hold for now,” is an example of inflammatory and moralistic language that causes sex education for students to be seen as some sort of pornographic thrill rather than what it is: necessary information for young people to make healthy sexual choices. The article was biased and presented a one-sided view of the issue, suggesting that providing sexual information to young people is akin to providing pornographic content. As a therapist, sex educator and parent of teens, I take issue with the way this important issue is being discussed.
Anyone who believes that the educational videos proposed as supplemental content to the school district’s sex ed curriculum are more graphic than what most teenagers are already accessing online is fooling themselves. Unfortunately, teenagers today have unprecedented access to pornography and all sorts of inaccurate information about sex due to unfettered internet access. While there are a handful of parents who may work hard to limit their children’s access to this content, most teenagers are able to find ways to view material that those of us in an older generation never imagined at their age.
So what do we do? We must give young people accurate information about sex, including birth control, sexually transmitted infections, consent and decision-making. We must help them navigate a sexually complex world in a way that allows them agency over their own bodies and the moral compass to respect the bodies and choices of others.
When sex education for minors is portrayed as salacious content, it undermines the purpose of sex education, which is to help young people make decisions about how to engage in relationships with other people.
Ideally, parents should begin talking to their children about sex in an age-appropriate manner starting in early elementary school. This includes using correct names for body parts and helping kids understand the importance of bodily autonomy, an approach which has been proven to help deter sexual abuse. In later elementary school, the changes that occur in puberty, along with the intensity of feeling that can emerge, should be discussed in an open and nonshaming manner.
As children get older, information about birth control and STIs should be provided so young people can make informed choices about their sexual behavior. And ideally, teenagers would have the opportunity to talk about these things in an environment that is accepting and supportive, and which helps them to make choices based on their personal and familial values about their sexual behavior.
Studies have shown that comprehensive sex education does not increase sexual activity among teenagers. Two 2017 papers from the Journal of Adolescent Health report that abstinence-till-marriage sex education does not delay sexual initiation or reduce risky sexual behaviors among young people.
In another JAH article from January 2021, a review of literature and research overwhelmingly suggests that comprehensive sex education promotes development of healthy relationships, prevention of child abuse, improved social/emotional learning, increased media literacy and prevention of intimate partner violence.
The research tells us that comprehensive sex education does not lead to increased sexual activity among young people. It can be uncomfortable to talk to our kids about sex, and while ideally we would be able to transmit our values and appropriate information to our children, it is important that they be provided with accurate information in an environment where they feel free to ask questions. Our schools can provide such an environment in health classes.
Sex is an important part of human life, and trying to hide this reality can lead to bad choices, some of which may have lifelong consequences. We must give our children the tools they need to make informed, values-based decisions about sex, and to respect the choices and autonomy of others.