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Many have had to go through the painful experience of watching some poor P. E or science teacher stumble awkwardly through a lecture based on the “dangers” and “consequences” of premarital sex or sex in general. However, the most painful aspect of these lectures is not how uncomfortable everyone in the situation feels, but how little these lectures contribute to the safety and well-being of the students forced to endure them. It is an unfortunate truth that a majority of public schools within the United States have a sex education curriculum based on falsehoods and scare tactics or have no curriculum at all, leaving many students defenseless or ignorant. Implementing a curriculum for comprehensive sex education that emphasizes scientific facts and an open-minded attitude toward sex would be beneficial to both students’ physical and mental health. One of the biggest debates in sex education is the idea of abstinence-only versus comprehensive, but few know what either truly means. Abstinence-only is a little self-explanatory, as the curriculum only allows educators to advocate only abstinence as a form of “protection” from sex. Comprehensive sex education requires educators to teach about other forms of birth control in combination with abstinence and may also teach about certain transmitted diseases whereas an abstinence-only based program would most likely ignore these subjects altogether. According to the Guttmacher Institute, as of October 1, 2018, only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate some form of sex education.
Now, that does not mean only 24 states have schools with a sex education program, it just means that there are 24 states where all public schools (of a determined grade) have a curriculum for sex education. However, out of all states, both those that require sex education and those that do not, only13 require that the instruction be medically accurate and 3 states even require only negative information on sexual orientations outside of heterosexuality. There are many other concerning matters such as the fact that 18 states require an emphasis be put on only engaging in sexual activity within marriage, but other matters such as the fact that 28 states and the District of Columbia require the provision of information about skills for healthy sexuality (including avoiding coerced sex), healthy decisions making and family communication when sex education is taught can be seen as uplifting. These various aspects show the chaotic and moderately concerning state of sex education within America. This chaotic nature has led American public-school sex education to take on numerous forms, many of which rely on misinformation, scare tactics, and gendered double standards. However, while only a select amount of studies has been done (due to the relatively recent institution of any sex education within the United States) many studies do show that there are numerous health benefits attributed to a sex education that relies on scientific facts and an attitude and environment of open-mindedness. Many of these studies focus on the physical health benefits that a quality sex education curriculum would reward students with.
For example, a good sex education would relay the science behind certain sexually transmitted diseases and physiological changes to the body during the stages of adolescent development. It would then share the scientific differences between the body of a healthy student and the body of a student with unhealthy symptoms. This knowledge would empower students with the confidence to evaluate their own bodies and know when to seek out medical attention for certain diseases and potential hormonal discrepancies. Another topic that would be covered with better accuracy would be the various ways to protect students from potential harm during sexual encounters, such as the necessary precautions to take to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and the precautions to take when in a situation of potential sexual misconduct. This education would also foster an environment that relies on honesty and would work to improve attitudes toward sex by debunking any popular myths or misconceptions openly. By doing this, any sense of “awkwardness” would be greatly depleted and students would be encouraged to ask and answer questions more unashamedly. In fact, a study done based on the recall of sex education in relation to students’ sexual behavior and attitude found the following, “…our examination of those who reported consistently using condoms suggested that greater norms toward safer sex, more positive attitudes about and intentions to try to practice safer sex, and greater expectations to practice safer sex are associated with reports of safer sex behaviors. This implies that simply providing information about STIs and safer sex choices is not enough; practitioners delivering safer sex messages must also battle negative attitudes…and low expectations or self-efficacy for safer sex behaviors…” (Walcott, 2011) This information is usually avoided as many believe that it would “encourage” students to become sexually active, but in reality, this information, when presented through science and not myth, helps students make more informed judgments about their actions and prevents them from being placed in dangerous circumstances.
A study done by Douglas B. Kirby found that, “… about two-thirds of comprehensive programs showed strong evidence that they positively affected young people’s sexual behavior, including both delaying initiation of sex and increasing condom and contraceptive use among important groups of youth. ” (Kirby, 2008) This study shows that students who receive a comprehensive sex education based in scientific facts and an open attitude toward sex are more likely to delay sexual encounters and actively be safer when they do finally choose to engage in sexual behavior. Other studies focus on different health benefits, such as that of the students’ mental health and overall attitude towards sex. As stated previously, due to the many misunderstandings of sex, many stigmas are attached to those who choose to engage in sexual activity and due to the gendered double standards, these stigmas are more regularly placed on women than men. Unfortunately, because of this, many victims of sexual assault face the consequences of these stigmas and are often dehumanized as a result. Because of this dehumanization, rape victims are three times more likely than non-victims of crime to have a major depressive episode (30% Vs 10%) and they are 3. 5 times more likely to be currently experiencing a major depressive episode (21% Vs 6%). (National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, 2000)
The implementation of the suggested sex education would provide a strong foundation in the definitions of consent and empower students to know that their sexual activity does not define them as any less of a human. Basically, a strong foundation given by a quality sex education would help students develop strong identities protecting them from developing or exacerbating any mental health issues that may arise as a result of any type of sexual encounter. It has been shown that “…science [in sex education] was, in fact, influential to [students’] thinking about decision-making, when it came up in the context of health class and health issues that resonated with their identities. ”(Brotman, 2012) The study found that students who received a scientifically based sex education in an environment that welcomed questioning and non-discrimination towards sex were more likely to develop stronger identities that positively influenced their attitudes toward sex. A stronger identity can help students recognize and protect themselves from potentially harmful situations that may negatively impact their mental health. This is because the education would dispel any myth that equated sex with lower self-worth. By improving attitudes towards sex and increasing an identity based in self-worth, students who choose to be sexually active would be less susceptible to outside negativity that could impact their mental health.
Additionally, victims of sexual assault could dispel the shame that is often placed onto them and have more confidence when making reports and have less fear of judgment when seeking out help. Although there is only a select amount of studies that have been done about the impact of sex education on America’s youth, those that have been done show a strong correlation between more comprehensive education and healthier students. Education should have the intention to inform and protect, not hurt and scare, but unfortunately, this has not yet been translated into the realm of sexual education. By implementing an ideal sex education program within public schools, students can be armored with the knowledge that can protect them on various fronts and lead them on the path to happier, healthier lives.
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