Sex education in US schools is far from uniform. While 26 states require an emphasis on abstinence, many others offer comprehensive sex education. The key components of comprehensive programs teach youth about contraceptives, address attitudes towards sexuality, and discuss how to build healthy relationships. Inclusive sex education is particularly important for LGBTQ youth. Compared to their heterosexual and cisgender classmates, LGBTQ youth are more likely to engage in riskier sexual behavior, experience dating violence, and be forced into having sexual intercourse.
When taught effectively, comprehensive sex education reduces risky sexual behaviors. The most effective sex education programs focus on clear health goals and actions, such as contraception use for STD prevention. They also actively engage teens in activities by creating safe classroom environments. And they address how perceived norms, risks, and attitudes can affect sexual behavior. Young people who are taught such curricula wait longer until first intercourse, increase their condom use, and decrease their number of sexual partners. As a result, rates of both sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy also decrease.
While the components of effective comprehensive sex education are known, there is no standard, universally-used curriculum. This means every state enacts its own laws and requirements dictating the classroom content. Researchers from the University of Chicago reviewed the laws and sex education policies in all 50 states for grades K-12, looking specifically for the inclusion of LGBTQ topics.
Uniform adoption of comprehensive sex education standards can help ensure all youth, particularly LGBTQ youth, are empowered with the skills and knowledge to make informed decisions about their sexual health.
Only 22 states mention LGTBQ-related content in their sex education policies. Nine of these states require inclusive sex education, which affirmatively recognizes and respects LGBTQ people. For example, core concepts in Connecticut’s curriculum include gender identity, sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender roles.
Conversely, six states mandate discriminatory LGBTQ education: Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. Of the six, only South Carolina requires sex education. When these states decide to teach sex education in their schools, they either exclude information about LGBTQ relationships or mandate discriminatory lessons. In Louisiana, human sexuality is not discussed and schools cannot use materials that depict male or female homosexual activity. In Alabama, schools that do teach sex education must emphasize “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public.”
In addition to outright discrimination, 22 states include normative language in their sex education policies. Normative language emphasizes monogamous, heterosexual relationships and abstinence before marriage. This language perpetuates biases against other types of relationships and further stigmatizes the LGBTQ community.
When it comes to providing leadership on sex education standards, the federal government has taken a back seat, including making investments in abstinence-only education. In response, advocacy organizations like SIECUS have developed National Sexuality Education Standards to provide guidelines for K-12 sexuality education. These guidelines stress cooperative and active learning, and teaching key topics including anatomy, identity, healthy relationships, and personal safety.
Uniform adoption of comprehensive sex education standards can help ensure all youth, particularly LGBTQ youth, are empowered with the skills and knowledge to make informed decisions about their sexual health. While some states are working towards this goal, others are antagonistic toward providing young people with foundational and healthy messaging about sex and sexuality.
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