How Sex Ed Has the Power to Make Social Change

Arming students with inclusive sex education would lead to a community of individuals empowered to change social systems.

Student sitting in desk in class looking to the side
Inclusive sex ed includes teaching foundational concepts in kindergarten and building upon them as kids grow older. Getty Images

For more sex education resources, check out our Better Sex Ed guide.

This May, we celebrate Sex Ed for All Month and advocate for what sex education should look like.

High-quality sex education covers topics such as consent and bodily autonomy; inclusion and acceptance for all people without exceptions for race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, or other identities; sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention; reproductive anatomy; communication and relationship skills; and basic information about pregnancy prevention. It is taught by specially trained professionals who have the tools to create a safe space for students.

All students deserve to have inclusive sex education. According to the National Sex Education Standards, that should start with foundational concepts in kindergarten: consent, body safety and autonomy, and correct terminology about body parts.

Research shows that knowing correct terminology and being able to say “no” to unwanted touching can keep children safe from sexual predators and help them understand that they are in charge of their own bodies. Concepts such as consent are taught to kindergarteners using age-appropriate situations, like how to navigate with their friends what they do and don’t want as they are playing. Learning to say “no” and how to respect someone who is saying “no” are life skills that can lead to reductions in sexual violence, open and positive communication, and healthy relationships later in life.

When following the National Sex Education Standards (which were created by the Future of Sex Education Initiative, a partnership of Advocates for Youth, Answer, and SIECUS:Sex Ed for Social Change), sex education teachers build on these foundational concepts as students’ brains develop. They introduce or dive deeper into more intricate topics such as what sexual orientation and gender identity are and how to develop understanding, tolerance, and acceptance. Everyone learns about bodies and what to expect as they develop.

As young people grow into adolescents, they begin to expand on the knowledge they have been receiving. They begin to understand pregnancy and think more deeply about risks and how to protect themselves. They also begin to integrate an understanding of historical and current racial bias and structural racism as it relates to reproductive health. They learn about healthy relationships as it relates to an intimate partner, to think critically about what they do and don’t want sexually, and how to give and receive consent for any kind of sexual activity.

The standards are grade-level appropriate, were developed by experts in sex education, and align with the Common Core standards in education. They provide guidance to educational systems teaching sex education.

Despite the public’s support for sex education, we are continuously fighting against legislation that pushes ineffective programs and reiterates a harmful narrative of shame and stigma called “sexual risk avoidance.”

More recently, the Professional Learning Standards for Sex Education were created to provide guidance for school administrators, curriculum developers, and current and aspiring sex educators. Developed by the Sex Education Collaborative, a partnership of 24 independent national, regional, and state-based organizations, the training concepts help teachers create the professional development plans they need to provide the trauma-informed, nonjudgmental, and medically accurate sex education that young people deserve. (For educators who want to invest in a sex education certificate, there are programs out of reputable institutions such as the University of Michigan and Rutgers University that offer nonshaming, comprehensive, and inclusive programs.)

Overwhelmingly, regardless of political affiliation, 89 percent of likely voters want comprehensive sex education taught in middle school, and 98 percent want it taught in high school. Despite the public’s support for sex education, we are continuously fighting against legislation that pushes ineffective programs and reiterates a harmful narrative of shame and stigma called “sexual risk avoidance” (SRA).

While it may sound good on paper, sexual risk avoidance deserves closer inspection. SRA programs, which are abstinence-only programs rebranded, push ideological programming based on misinformation, heteronormativity, and outdated concepts of gender and gender roles.

An abstinence-only approach reinforces gender stereotypes, fails to provide necessary information about sexual health, and stigmatizes sexually active young people. Numerous studies show that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work. Youth who receive abstinence-only programming are not delaying sexual activity or reducing their risky sexual behavior. In fact, we are seeing a rise in STI rates across the county.

Despite the sexual risk avoidance movement’s track record of failure, it continues to deceive students, parents, and educators by offering its own trainings and certifications for teachers. Research shows that comprehensive sex education can improve social and emotional learning of individuals, reduce dating and intimate partner violence, and prevent child sex abuse. We need to do better and eliminate SRA programs from our schools.

Sex education has the power to make social change. If every young person in the United States received sex education according to the National Sex Education Standards, we would raise a community of individuals empowered to change social systems: a population of people who are tolerant and caring, who are actively working to dismantle racist systems, who are in charge of their own bodies, who know how to advocate for their sexual health and sexual pleasure, and who know how to hear and respect a “no.”

Sex education is all about ensuring young people have the skills and information about real-world topics at the right developmental age. The topics covered and the methodology with which they should be taught are based on countless years of research, science, and fact.

Young people in the United States deserve to learn sex education and be taught by professionals who have been properly trained. It is time to fully embrace sex education, so our young people are empowered to make positive social change.