Every day, we receive new information that builds the evidence that comprehensive sex education is necessary for providing young people with the information they need to ensure their lifelong sexual health and well-being. Last October, a highly anticipated comprehensive literature review, “Three Decades of Research: The Case for Comprehensive Sex Education,” was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. This study assessed the results of 80 academic papers over the past 30 years that drew lessons from qualitative and quantitative studies evaluating outcomes of school-based, K–12 educational approaches, both within sex education and across the curriculum.
The review found that teaching the full range of sexual health topics across grades and subject areas, and within supportive school environments, can improve sexual health, social and emotional wellness, and academic outcomes for young people. It also showed that building an early foundation and scaffolding learning with developmentally appropriate content and teaching are key to long-term growth of knowledge, attitudes, and skills that support healthy sexuality. In addition, school-based sex education can lower homophobia and homophobic-related bullying, increase understanding of gender and gender norms, improve knowledge and skills that support healthy relationships, build child sex abuse prevention skills, and reduce dating and intimate partner violence.
The review found strong evidence that sex education yields positive results for young people when it includes a range of topics, is conducted across grade levels, addresses a broad definition of sexual health, and takes inclusive approaches to human sexuality.
Another paper published this year, “Comprehensive Sexuality Education as a Primary Prevention Strategy for Sexual Violence Perpetration,” examined the potential of K–12 comprehensive sex education programs and their ability to have any impact related to sexual violence. The study found that comprehensive sex education programs could meet the qualities of effective prevention programs and help mitigate the risk factors that are most implicated in sexual violence perpetration. Researchers determined that students who receive sex education before college—including refusal skills training—are at a lower risk of experiencing sexual assault during college, and that high school sex education may have a lasting and protective effect for adolescents.
There is broad agreement that K–12 schools play a particularly important role in teaching youth refusal skills about consent, because K–12 schools can reach young people at a formative stage of development—before students begin to have sex or form beliefs about sex. Schools can plant the seeds of understanding about consent when teaching young children the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch,” and may raise the idea of consent when covering topics such as relationship and communication skills.
Another reason that comprehensive sex education is so important for young people is the role it can play in creating positive, affirming, and safer school environments. More and more researchers are beginning to document the overwhelmingly beneficial impact of comprehensive sex education programs that are LGBTQ-inclusive. These emerging studies have shed important insights on inclusive sex education programs, like how they help reduce bullying and create safer school environments for all students, yield positive sexual health and mental health outcomes, and increase affirmation of LGBTQ youth identities.
These findings are incredibly important to help school administrators, parents, and educators recognize that for far too long we have been narrowly focused on sex education as a strategy to prevent teen pregnancy, delay the onset of sexual activity, and prevent transmission of sexually transmitted infections. While important, our young people and our society need us to recognize and value the broader individual and social benefits of comprehensive sex education.
The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Data Summary & Trends Report” data show that mental health is a growing problem for youth, which has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The data is clear: More than 1 in 3 high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40 percent increase since 2009. Almost half of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students and nearly one-third of students who are unsure of their sexuality reported they had seriously considered suicide—far more than heterosexual students. Further, the number of Black students who reported attempting suicide in 2019 rose by almost 50 percent.
The truth is our young people need us to act—now—and comprehensive sex education programs are an important strategy. The United Nations Populations Fund Operational Guidance states that, by embracing a holistic vision of sexuality and sexual behavior that goes beyond a focus on prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, comprehensive sex education enables children and young people to explore and nurture positive values and attitudes regarding equitable gender roles and develop life skills that encourage critical thinking, communication and negotiation, decision making, and assertiveness.
Fortunately, adding consent education within comprehensive sex education requirements is a growing trend in states across the country as our nation continues to grapple with a growing awareness of the importance of sexual consent. Consent education should seek to promote healthy sexuality for young people by helping them understand consent as affirmative and truly voluntary. We recommend policies that require age-appropriate consent education and clarify that consent must be freely given, can be withdrawn, is not implied by consent to a previous activity or with a different person, and cannot be given by a person who is intoxicated or asleep.
School administrations and sex educators now have a new resource to make sure that their programs meet these goals. This year, the Future of Sex Education—a collaborative project between Advocates for Youth, Answer, and Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS)—released updated National Sex Education Standards for K–12. The first edition of the standards was a breakthrough, outlining the foundational knowledge and skills students need to navigate sexual development and grow into sexually healthy adults. The updated standards reflect advancements in research regarding sexual orientation; gender identity; social, racial, and reproductive justice; and the long-term consequences of stigma and discrimination.
As the United States grapples with increasingly broader calls for sexual violence prevention, gender equity, LGBTQ equality, and racial justice, it is incumbent upon the field of sex education to center these and other individual behavioral changes and social norms into sex education programming in order to contribute to long-lasting solutions.
Christine Soyong Harley is the president and CEO of SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change.