The State of Sex Education

How schools can broaden the conversation around sex and consent to better prepare students

December 4, 2018
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With the rise of #MeToo, consent — what it means, how to recognize when it is or isn't being given, how to effectively voice it — has been one of the most talked about topics of the year. And with it has come the question of how and when to educate children about consent, and how consent fits (or should fit) into traditional sex education programs.

It's a hard question, since even traditional sex ed is not yet universal in schools in the United States. In fact, according to a report released this year by the Center for American Progress (CAP), only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in public schools. Even fewer states include consent.

"According to state laws and education standards, only 10 states and the District of Columbia mention the terms 'healthy relationships,' 'sexual assault,' or 'consent' in their sex education programs," the CAP report states. "This means that the majority of U.S. public school students do not receive instruction through their state’s sex education program on how to identify healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviors."

“Sex ed is often scattershot and many students don’t have access to sex ed at all,” says Catherine Brown, the vice president of education policy at CAP, who coauthored the report, in an interview recorded for the Harvard EdCast. “And when they do, it is often fear-based and [about] all the things that can go wrong.”

Sex education in America is still often taught as abstinence-only, despite decades of research showing that this approach results in higher teen pregnancy rates and STDs. Absent a more complete sex education — or any at all — children often learn from peers, siblings, or the internet, Brown tells EdCast, opening the way for misinformation and a lack of understanding of what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to respect in sexual relationships. Students need to be prepared for the world we live in and become part of a broader conversation about “communication, intimacy, desire, and healthy relationships,” Brown says. 

Although the federal government has moved to reduce access to intervention tools such as sex education, there's also some good news: Many states, fueled by the #MeToo movement, are taking initiative to make change, Brown says. “#MeToo is the catalyst for better consent and sex ed in schools and states around the country,” she says, citing Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, and Maryland as states that have updated laws to include consent.

Part of a special series about preventing sexual harassment at school. Read the whole series.

Illustration by Wilhelmina Peragine

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Education Policy K-12 Learning and Teaching Social-Emotional Wellbeing