The Sex Ed Scam: How American Schools Get Away With Harmful Sex Ed Curriculum
A grating musical outro jolts me awake. I flip my phone over – it’s 8:50 AM, 40 minutes into the school day. My classroom is tucked behind the basement gym – no service, so I’ll have to wait to check my texts. A few of my classmates stir, only to nestle their heads back into makeshift sweatshirt pillows. A boy who cheats off of me in Algebra 2 is concentrating hard on Candy Crush, headphones in, Nikes lounging on the empty desk beside him. No one is on edge, expecting to be reprimanded for sleeping through first period. Instead, my middle-aged gym teacher lounges at his desk without acknowledging the dozing crowd. He only looks up from his phone to slide the next grainy DVD into the projector.
Now that I’m up, I sip my coffee and try to pay attention. In the video, high school students mingle at a poorly staged house party, hands on hips and on red Solo cups. From the spaghetti strap tank tops and cargo shorts, I’m pretty sure the video was made before 2003. The screen transitions to one of the party attendees calling her friend on a landline. “I’m a week late. It was just supposed to be a boozy hookup! How do I tell him?” she pleads. The screen wipes again. A “teenage” actor that looks about 30 years old launches into an unconvincing monologue. Paraphrased: “Being sexually active is a serious risk. I have my whole life ahead of me, and enough high school craziness to worry about a baby or an STD! That’s why I choose to take charge of my future by saying NO WAY! to sex and making the responsible choice: Abstinence.”
The projector flashes to an unsettling blue and my gym teacher distributes a worksheet.
#1. What are three consequences of sexual activity?
#2. What would you say to someone pressuring you to have sex?
#3. True/False: sex and emotions can be completely separate.
The last question is a fill in the blank: "What is the only method guaranteed to protect against pregnancy and STDs? I roll my eyes and scrawl: 'abstinence.'"
In my home state of Nebraska, there is no mandate that sex education must be taught in schools. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be medically accurate. You know, like when you go to history class and learn that the Jonas Brothers started the Civil War in 1970. Individual school districts choose curriculum as they see fit, but Nebraska will only provide funding to schools for abstinence-based programs. This curriculum free-for-all has allowed for the continued use of curriculum programs like W.A.I.T.: Why Am I Tempted, created in 1996, still in recent use, which stresses “abstinence until marriage as the most important way to avoid potential life pitfalls”. In a 2014 Health and Human Services evaluation of the effectiveness of the W.A.I.T. program in Florida classrooms, 32% of the 334 students in the program surveyed did not know if condoms decreased the risk of pregnancy. Nearly 40% did not know if condoms decreased the risk of HIV/AIDS. 36% did not know if birth control pills decreased the risk of pregnancy or not.
At my school, our sex education did not include comprehensive information on birth control methods. Despite this, my high school has never had a student carry out a pregnancy to term. My female peers would get birth control by telling their moms they needed it for acne or controlling their periods, and could afford to buy Plan B if they had unprotected sex. Buzzfeed and Teen Vogue taught me about condoms and lube. But my peers who didn’t seek out that information were left to learn about sex from free porn and uninformed high school students. Because there were no visible repercussions (i.e. no pregnant students) of abstinence-only sex education in my school, my district skated along without updating the curriculum. But the most harmful repercussions of our failing curriculum were non-visible. Friends of mine did not report sexual assaults because they did not realize they could be assaulted by a significant other. Two alumni were kicked out of fraternities for assault charges a year after leaving my school. Upon asking my Nebraska peers for feedback of our sex ed, most stated that they did not know sex could be pleasurable for women for years after high school.
My LGBTQ+ peers were significantly harmed by non-comprehensive sex education. No one ever mentioned that being queer was wrong because no one ever mentioned being queer. Only 38% of Nebraska high schools teach about gender identity in health class and only 36% teach about sexual orientation. According to our curriculum, sex was confined to a tightly wrapped box: inside the box was a man and a woman (who love each other very much), on their wedding night, no contraceptives (and no female pleasure) included. Anything outside of that narrative was not to be spoken of out of fear of spreading dangerous ideas to our teenage minds. Every queer friend I had who grew up hearing this story suppressed their sexuality until a breaking point erupted. Our sex education was effective at one thing: it planted a malicious little voice in the back of our heads telling us to suppress our sexual desires and orientation, especially if it did not fit “in the box”. That voice can be suppressed at best and life-threatening at its worst.
My friend puts it best here: “This led to painful self-denial that I struggle with to this day, despite attending an extremely liberal, queer-friendly, and sex-positive university...An inclusive and comprehensive sex education would have spared me much of the pain arising from the time I spent believing there was something fundamentally “wrong” with how I am wired as a person.”
For my friends of color, our curriculum did not bring up race as a major determinant of sexual health. Nobody explained why Black and Hispanic women are less likely to use contraception, why Black women are 15 times more likely than white women to be diagnosed with HIV, or why transgender women of color are 6 times more likely to experience violence at the hands of police than other transgender people. Our curriculum provided nothing to counteract sexual stereotyping and fetishization of women of color. My friends had to learn about sexual racism by scrolling through sexualized media and porn sites that did not consider BIPOC palatable for mainstream audiences. Instead of being taught that their bodies were deserving of celebration and respect, they saw themselves relegated to a sub-category, an exotic sexual novelty.
My high school was over 90% white and high income. Across the city, similar curriculum produced the expected repercussions of excluding dialogue around consent, gender identity, and pleasure. Without the shield of high income, however, teenage pregnancy and STIs affected lower income Black and Hispanic communities at a disparate rate. Nebraska overall has low rates of teenage pregnancies compared to other states, yet high racial disparities in who is actually giving birth. The demographic makeup of the state gives more context. Nebraska’s population is 88% white. However, despite making up only 16.6% of Nebraska’s population, Hispanic and Black girls made up 48% of adolescent births in 2016. Incomplete sex education failed to acknowledge or address these health disparities and continue to fail students of color by sweeping their experiences under the rug. The state and individual school districts remain complacent with our lower than the national average STI and pregnancy statistics. As long as these numbers reflect well on our state’s education system, why institute sweeping curriculum changes that could equip students of all socioeconomic backgrounds with the knowledge and confidence they needed to navigate their future sex lives?
I wish I could end on a bright note on the future of my high school’s curriculum, that soon a day of reckoning will come upon schools who promote harmful norms and exclude key health information. Unfortunately, there are minimal channels to keep schools accountable for the harmful sex ed curriculum they promote, especially as they are financially encouraged to teach abstinence-only by federal and state funds. Individual schools don’t often get tied back to rape allegations involving minors. STI statistics are taken from large counties and are not traced back to specific school districts. Assault allegations can be silenced by wealthy parents who can afford to quiet accusations. When I asked my high school principal senior year why our curriculum was so outdated, he told me that there hadn’t yet been an outcry from parents to change it. For you, the reader, I urge you to think about your own sex education. What was left out? Who was responsible for leaving that information out? Right now, in 2020, only 29 states and the District of Columbia require sex education curriculum at all. Only 22 states mandate that this sex education must be medically accurate. Abstinence-only programs have been federally funded for decades, despite evidence that these programs are not effective. Since 2015, federal money allocated toward abstinence-only programs has doubled, with 2019 clocking in at $110 million dedicated toward these programs.
I wonder how many hours of my life were wasted looking at pictures of genital warts instead of being educated about masturbation, a foolproof way to explore your sexuality without risk of STIs or pregnancy. Instead of being repeatedly told that losing my virginity would ruin my relationships and future, my teachers could have affirmed that it was okay if we were sexually attracted to our own gender or to no one at all. Maybe I could have learned earlier that sex is supposed to be pleasurable for all parties. What if the paragraph of our textbook which stated that we could avoid being sexually assaulted by not drinking alcohol was replaced with a frank discussion on how to ask for and give consent? Instead of being honestly prepared for our sexual futures, we stumbled, struggled to ask questions, hurt and were hurt by others.
I went to the alleged “best public high school in the state”. My music classes taught me to be brave, practice, fail, and get back up again. My AP Government teacher taught me that modern events always have a historical precedent. In English, I learned that my words are powerful. All my sex ed class taught me was that pleasure should be an afterthought, my desires were shameful, I should not ask questions, and when I asked, I did not deserve to know the answers.
Emma is a Public Health student at George Washington University from Omaha, Nebraska. She most often gets on her soapbox to talk about comprehensive sex education and involving community members in health intervention design. Emma can also be found curating her Spotify playlists, trying plant-based recipes, or retweeting her friends.