This past summer, as students were released into the heat of summer, into weeks at art and soccer camp, into weekends down the shore, school districts began a mad scramble. You see, back in 2020, my home state of New Jersey had adopted the updated Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education. Those new standards are due for implementation this school year.
Here’s the thing. Shortly after those updated standards were adopted, we all got distracted by a worldwide pandemic, which led to school closures and hybrid schedules and remote learning and an uproar over whether mask mandates for teachers and students should exist.
It was a lot.
So, districts could perhaps be forgiven for waiting until the last moment to update their health education curricula in order to align with the updated standards.
But now they’re rushing things to meet a fast-approaching deadline and, as attention has shifted back toward inclusiveness in education, sex ed opponents have shown themselves to be highly displeased.
In the past year especially, a disinformation campaign has been spreading across the country. Thanks to this coordinated campaign, there have been numerous lies flying around about the intentions of health and sexuality educators and about the work they do. And this campaign has succeeded in sowing panic among parents and school administrators.
Several months ago, one school district announced it would skirt the guidelines by limiting sex education to a single, 35-minute class at the end of the school year. This isn’t the only district to succumb to the pressure of conservative pushback.
But in capitulating to a small but vocal minority of folks who oppose these standards, school districts are abdicating their responsibility to students themselves.
You’ve likely heard many falsehoods about the goals of sex education classes—and about the content of those classes—no matter where you live. This increasingly loud opposition to sex ed certainly isn’t exclusive to New Jersey.
In Massachusetts, for example, thousands of parents pulled their kids out of sex ed, claiming it sexualized them. They were motivated to do so after local religious groups distributed opt-out forms to those within their communities. In California, a group called Informed Parents of California promoted anti-LGBTQ and transphobic rhetoric, claiming that attempts to make sex education more inclusive deviated from heteronormativity. Across the country, individual educators are being called out for “grooming” and “indoctrinating” children.
But here is the truth.
Those who seek to educate our children are driven by the same goal most parents have: to keep children safe.
And comprehensive, inclusive sex education is how we do that.
How lackluster sex ed fails our children
Growing up, I received a fear-based education, one that focused on the physical risks of sexual activity versus relational decision-making. By the time I graduated from high school, I had no clue how to maintain my own bodily autonomy.
Perhaps that’s why I ended up in a sexually and emotionally abusive relationship at the age of 20, with a person who coerced me into sex. For years after that relationship ended, I felt as if I was broken.
My story is common. Research shows that abstinence-only-until-marriage sex ed programs are ineffective at preventing sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancy. As I wrote nearly two years ago, such programs emphasize that abstinence is the only way to remain safe, particularly from STIs, and while they do sometimes mention condoms and other forms of contraception, they often focus on the failure rates of these forms of protection.
Lessons in these classes encourage students to just wait until marriage to have sex. Yet research shows that adolescents who have taken abstinence-only sex ed are not any more likely to abstain from sex than other students. In fact, because of the lessons they’ve learned about the ineffectiveness of condoms and other forms of protection, students are sometimes less likely to practice these forms of safer sex and are more susceptible to contraceptive coercion.
Not only that, but these lesson plans also do not tend to cover the nuances of consent and other relational decision-making, leaving them vulnerable to sexual coercion and other forms of relationship abuse.
I’ve mentioned all of this research many times over, in previous articles for Rewire News Group—it is so frustrating to see the same lies and misinformation continue to be weaponized by opponents of comprehensive sex education.
But opponents of comprehensive sex ed continue to spread these lies because they play so perfectly into already-existing fears around sex ed.
Why we fear school-based sex ed
I know why parents and administrators are afraid of sex education—they fear that teaching kids about sexuality while they’re still young and impressionable is equivalent to giving them the go-ahead to engage in sexual behavior.
But research shows the opposite is true.
If you dig into the information about how children develop cognitively, you’ll find that adolescents are not too young to take in and understand information about sexuality. They’re also not so suggestible that simply hearing about sex will make them want to have it.
As commentary in the Journal of Adolescent Health says (and I’ve shared this in the past), “adolescents can and do make wise choices when guided by teachers who understand, respect, and nurture young people’s decision-making capacities.”
On top of all this, research has shown, over and over again, that in addition to reducing sexual risk-taking behaviors, comprehensive and inclusive sex education aids students in relational decision-making, provides them with knowledge that protects them from abuse, and makes them feel seen.
Isn’t that what we all want for our children?
A small, regressive minority
I implore you—help educators keep our children safe.
As the mother of an 8-year-old, most everything I fear is in some way connected to my child’s safety. And that’s why I strongly support the updated Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education. Because I know that comprehensive and inclusive sex education is what will keep her safe.
It took me 35 years to feel comfortable with who I am, able to advocate for my own body autonomy. I don’t want it to take that long for my daughter. I want it to be something she does from the very beginning.
No matter who we are, I know we want our kids to be safe and to get the support they need. A small, regressive minority of politicians are trying to keep our children ignorant and vulnerable.
I hope our schools do not allow that to happen.