Sex in the States

Every year the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) puts out a legislative report that is a gold mine of information—and gives the lay of the land nationally when it comes to sex-ed programs.

This year, SIECUS noted that only 22 states and Washington, D.C. require sex ed programs in the schools and “only 13 require the content to be medically accurate.” Just 18 states mandate that schools give info on contraceptives and only nine insist the curriculum have material that’s “inclusive of all sexual orientations.” Thirty-nine percent of programs in the U.S. taught students how to correctly use a condom.

In 2015, 42 states introduced 184 bills related to sex ed. Most of them addressed prevention of sexual violence, 20 bills dealt with requiring parental permission for sex-ed instruction, 28 bills focused on bullying or gender identity and sexual orientation nondiscrimination (only California and Idaho passed laws), and seven bills were efforts to curb teen pregnancy rates (none of the pregnancy-reduction bills were enacted).

One of the things the 52-year-old  SIECUS pays attention to that few others do is whether there is any sex-positive information in the curriculum or mandates. In other words, are schools teaching students that sex is a normal and natural aspect of human development and, while it’s important for them to learn about pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, is the curriculum going beyond scare tactics? That’s hard to pin down—and most states and school districts won’t go there, although there are plenty of good, strong curriculums that encourage students to explore their feelings rather than tell them how to feel. (See page 9 for examples from the “Making Proud Choices” curriculum.)

SIECUS observed a dangerous trend among conservatives, or Abstinence Only Until Marriage advocates, who have moved on from frontal attacks to subtler efforts, “co-opting the language” of sex-ed advocates and diluting or diverting it. For example, “medically accurate and age-appropriate” has definitions that are all over the map, according to SIECUS. The definition of “experts” who review and evaluate curriculum or provide classroom instruction is occasionally bloated to include ethics experts, therapists, and faith leaders. The push for Abstinence Only Until Marriage is rebranded as “sexual risk avoidance” and smuggled into the curriculum.

When it comes to LGBTQ-inclusive material in curriculums, progress is “glacial,” SIECUS reports. Last year, Texas failed at efforts to strike language from its curriculum that stated “homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense . . . ” Alabama also failed to remove similar language. Eight states introduced LGBTQ-friendly sex-ed bills, but only one, California’s, passed.

How does Maryland stack up when it comes to sex ed? Maryland requires health education, including the topics of contraceptives, HIV/AIDS, and Family Life and Human Sexuality, but has no specific language about “medically accurate material” or sexual orientation; it requires that sex-ed teachers have some “additional preparation in content and teaching methods” but basically leaves all the details up to local school boards.

The state’s Department of Mental Health and Hygiene also accepted Title V abstinence education grants from the federal government totaling $500,895 in 2014. This money can only be used to promote an Abstinence Only Until Marriage message to young people—and has been largely discounted as ineffective at curbing teen births and STIs by experts.

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