Title media by
Max Beckerman

Illustrated by Max Beckerman

Trigger warning: paragraph 8 mentions sexual violence 

It's no secret that the American sex education system often leaves youth viewing sex like a puzzle they lack the tools to solve. An absence of sex education sets students up for sexual situations where they feel unprepared, scared, vulnerable and inadequately equipped to set essential boundaries and practice safe and healthy sex.

Comprehensive sex education informs youth about sexuality, human development, sexual orientation and gender identity, bodily autonomy, consent and relationship skills. Studies reveal that comprehensive, culturally competent and age-appropriate sex education has broad, long-term positive effects on youth physical and mental health. This includes reduced pregnancy rates, lower suicidal ideation and reduced drug and alcohol use before sex. In addition, such programs increase use of condoms and contraception while reducing the frequency of unprotected sexual activity, STIs and pregnancy. 

Despite the various benefits of sex education, there is currently no federally-mandated universal sex education curriculum, leaving states and local legislators with the power to decide whether or not to require sex education and what content would be covered. Currently, 39 states and Washington, D.C. require sex education or STI education programs, with only 18 states requiring sex education to be medically accurate. In addition, 29 states require that abstinence be emphasized, with 19 states stressing that only abstinence be taught to adolescents in schools. 

Abstinence-only-until-marriage (or AUOM) programs preach that the most effective way to prevent pregnancy and STIs is to withstand sex until marriage, which is both unrealistic and impractical to rely on. Studies indicate that abstinence-only education is not only ineffective in preventing teen pregnancy, but has a strong positive correlation with increased rates of teen pregnancy. Abstinence-only education stigmatizes sex and provides incomplete information while neglecting sexually active adolescents, LGBTQ+ adolescents, pregnant and parenting adolescents and survivors of sexual violence. 

Ren Birnholz, a fourth-year cultural anthropology and theater major, and president of Northeastern Sexual Health Advocacy, Resources, and Education, or NU SHARE, described their sex education experience as “traumatic and horrible” and “full of shame.” Birnholz, who grew up in Florida, said their educators preached abstinence and briefly taught about STIs and said they “wish they had sex education.” 

Danielle Bezalel, founder of SexEd with DB, a podcast dedicated to sex education that centers LGBTQ+ and BIPOC experts in the field, also shares similar frustrations with the current American sex education system. “We do not include that requirement [sex education] in local, state and federal policies and laws,” Bezalel said. “Our culture has made sex ed and sexual health so incredibly taboo and makes it more challenging to get medically accurate, science-backed content to the masses.” 

This begs the question of what comprehensive sex education must entail to effectively prepare youth for healthy and safe sex, setting boundaries and respecting themselves and one another. Two very important aspects of comprehensive sex education are consent education and LGBTQ+ inclusion. 

Consent Education

Content warning: The following paragraph mentions sexual violence.

Consent must be taught from grades k-12 with age-appropriate content. Consent education is pertinent to preventing sexual violence, yet only eight states and Washington, D.C. require schools to teach consent education. Sexual violence is a pervasive issue in the United States, as one in four women and one in 26 men experience attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Among undergraduate students, 26.4% of females and 6.8% of males experience sexual assault. Furthermore, 47% of transgender individuals have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, with disproportionately high rates of sexual violence towards transgender people of color.

With the rampant nature of sexual violence, we must be proactive in preventative education, which includes an emphasis on comprehensive consent education. A paper published by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health urges schools to start teaching students about consent, sexual harassment, how to respond to disclosures and provide students with resources that support survivors of sexual assault. Consent education in schools plays an integral role in preventing the onset of sexual violence by reaffirming and stressing the importance of respecting boundaries and actively practicing consent. Consent education must be taught from K-12 with age-appropriate curricula that relates to what students are going through at that phase of life.   

“Young people in schools, whether that be middle schoolers or high schoolers, are not getting consent education and are not understanding what it means to respect other people's bodily boundaries and to set your own bodily boundaries,”

Bezalel said. Bezalel dives deeper into this particular topic on the episode of her podcast, Consent Is Communication Is Consent. “Unfortunately, the way in which these classes and the way in which things are structured, often sex educators are teaching how not to get abused, how not to be the receiver of abuse… that is a framework of victim blaming.”

Currently, less than a third of students in the U.S. learn about consent in middle school or high school. According to a 2018 study, students who receive education on setting boundaries and consent are at lower risk of experiencing sexual assault during college-aged years. The lack of consent education fails to teach youth to respect others’ boundaries and fails to empower bodily autonomy. The ACT for Youth Center of Excellence says, “In a culture that too often deprives adolescents of sex education, young people do not always understand what assault and consent actually are, let alone how to talk to partners about sex.”  Schools play an integral role in influencing youth at their formative stages of development. Therefore, conversations around consent need to start in elementary school.

“Consent education should begin in preschool and needs to continue past that. Yes, we're taught not to touch other people if they don't want to be touched, but we're also taught in preschool that if someone asks you to share a toy, you have to share that toy,” says Nan Venderbush, a second-year psychology major and membership coordinator for NU SHARE. “Why are we taught that? If you don’t want to share something that's yours, you don't have to share it.” 

The National Sex Education Standards (NSES) written by Advocates for Youth, Answer, and SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change gives a specific guide for the “minimum, essential, core contents and skills” that students broadly need to be sexually healthy during their school-age years and throughout their lifespan. The NSES, which is trauma-informed and used by 41.3% of school districts in the US,​​ aims to ground the educational experience in “social justice and equity, honoring the diversity of students.” The curriculum says by the end of the second-grade, students should be able to define bodily autonomy and personal boundaries. It also says by the end of fifth-grade, students should be able to differentiate between sexual orientation and gender identity. Furthermore, by the end of eighth grade, students should be able to "define sexual consent and sexual agency," and by the end of 10th grade, students should be able to "compare and contrast characteristics of healthy and unhealthy romantic and/or sexual relationships." 

Advocates for Youth developed a sex education curriculum called “Rights, Respect, Responsibility”, or the 3Rs. This curriculum, which meets the NSES and SHECAT’s standards, provides in-depth modules for educators at k-12 grade level to teach culturally competent, comprehensive, inclusive and age-appropriate health and sex education. A kindergarten focused lesson, “My Space, Your Space,” teaches kids about setting physical boundaries. The third-grade lesson, “If You Don’t Have Consent, You Don’t Have Consent!” teaches students about consent and how to clearly communicate boundaries and respect others' boundaries. The sixth-grade lesson, "Consent: It Goes With Everything," defines sexual consent, sexual agency and factors that could impede one's ability to give consent. In grade seven, the lesson, "Harassment Prevention - The Basics," teaches students about sexual harassment, bystander intervention, and ways to support someone facing sexual harassment.

LGBTQ+ Education

Currently, states are also severely failing to include LGBTQ+ inclusive content in their sex education curricula, with only ten states requiring sex education to be LGBTQ+ inclusive and affirming. Five states, including Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas, require only negative and degrading information about the LGBTQ+ community to be shared in sex education courses. The lack of LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education is invalidating to LGBTQ+ youth and perpetuates stigma and homophobia. 

"In seventh grade, my public school gave us sex education. But a majority of it was preventative – mostly about STDs. Very little of it was about sex, and all of it was very heteronormative,”

said Reagan Thompson, a third-year behavioral neuroscience and chemistry double major at Northeastern. 

LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education is vital in supporting the social, physical, and mental well-being of queer youth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC says that quality sex education must “address the health needs of all students, including the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.” It is both beneficial to queer youth and allies as it shows positive visibility and inclusion towards the community while preventing bullying. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health directly ties LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education to a reduction in depressive symptoms, suicidal thoughts and suicidal ideation for LGBTQ+ youth. It is imperative to teach LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education so LGBTQ+ youth are equipped with the tools to be safe and healthy in sex and relationships.

“If you're not including LGBTQ+ people in sex ed, young people who identify in that way will feel excluded from their own curriculum,” Bezalel said.

Vermont’s Agency of Education’s Full Spectrum: Educators’ Guide to Implementing LGBTQ+ Inclusive Sex Ed” is a comprehensive guide on implementing an LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education curriculum. The guide urges educators and students to use body-first and gender-inclusive language, such as “people with vaginas,” and “people who are pregnant.” It also stresses the importance of normalize having everyone say their pronouns to avoid making assumptions about anyone’s gender identity. When discussing anatomies, it’s essential to reinforce to students that gender identity is different from sex assigned at birth. Furthermore, when discussing all forms of HIV and STI transmission, educators must discuss sexual behavior transmission and non-sexual transmission in terms of “risk and behavior” and not identity. It's also essential to teach about the different forms of sexual intercourse, which includes types of queer sex.

In the 3Rs curriculum, education around sexual orientation and gender identity begins in kindergarten, with a lesson called “Different Kinds of Families,” which discusses diverse family structures, including families with same-gender parents. The fifth-grade lesson, “Thinking Outside the (Gender) Box,” teaches students the differences between assigned sex at birth, gender identity and gender expression. The seventh-grade lesson, “Being the Change You Want to See in the World,” encourages students to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community and “Being Respectful About Gender Identity: Pronouns and Practice!” emphasizes the importance of respecting people’s pronouns. In the high school lesson, "Sexual Systems I: Parts," it is emphasized to use body-first language when teaching about internal and external sexual and reproductive body parts.

Advocating for Sex Education

We must continue to advocate for comprehensive sex education to better prepare  youth to feel confident in practicing safe and healthy sex. It’s essential that we advocate for comprehensive sex education on a local, state, and federal level.

On May 18, 2021, Senators Cory Booker and Mazie Hirono, and Representatives Barbara Lee and Alma Adams introduced the “Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act,” or REAHYA. REAHYA would offer the first federal grants for comprehensive sex education programs to encourage states to include programs that support “the sexual health and agency of young people” and offer LGBTQ+ inclusive programs. The act also seeks to end funding for harmful abstinence-only programs and would ensure that sex education is accessible to underserved communities. Reach out to your senators and representatives and urge them to pass REAHYA, which would be a huge step toward comprehensive sex education for all.

It’s important to keep researching what laws exist on federal, state, and local levels. Take a look at the SEICUS State Profiles to learn about your state's sex education policies. Another way to get involved in sex education advocacy is to join or start organizations at your school and the community that advocates for comprehensive sex education, such as NU  (SHARE) and Boston Health Initiative (BHI) at Northeastern. If your school or community doesn’t have local groups, reach out to a local Planned Parenthood or your local community at large to form advocacy groups. Bring ideas to local school board meetings and be vocal about the changes you want to see. Sex education curricula continues to be in the hands of lawmakers, and it's up to us to use our voices and advocate for much needed change to ensure healthier and safer futures.