In Washington, voters will approve or reject a law that would require public schools in the state to provide age-appropriate sex ed to all K-12 students. Could Washington's approach be the future for sex ed across the U.S.?

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A classroom and a pack of birth control pills
Credit: Geo Piatt/Shana Novak/Getty Images

When you think about the sex education you received in school, visions of a graphic video of a woman giving birth or photos of untreated sexually transmitted diseases may come to mind. Perhaps you remember lessons that preached “abstinence-only until marriage.” Maybe you don’t remember anything from your sex-ed classes — because you didn't have any.

You wouldn’t be alone: Only 28 states and the District of Columbia require both sex education and HIV education, usually from grades 6-12 (though it varies state by state), according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights. Of those states, only 17 require medically accurate information in their sex-ed curriculum. So, even if you receive sex education in school, there’s no guarantee that the information is truthful, let alone useful.

In the upcoming election, voters in Washington state will have a chance to fight for more accurate, effective sex education. Their ballot will ask them to approve or reject Referendum 90, a law that would require schools to provide age-appropriate sex ed to all K-12 public students. More specifically, the law would require that Washington's K-3 students, who currently don’t receive any form of sex ed, be taught social and emotional learning skills as building blocks for sexual health later in life. Older students’ current sex-ed programs would adopt new lessons about consent and bystander training (a.k.a. what to do if you see something happen without consent) — topics that, in most sex-ed classes across the U.S., are overshadowed by lessons on preventing STDs and unintended pregnancy.

Of course, reproductive health and disease prevention are important sexual health topics. But by omitting things such as consent, healthy relationships, and LGBTQ+ identities and experiences, schools are potentially setting up a generation of people to lack a fundamental understanding of healthy sexual behavior, and even their own bodies. (To be clear, LGBTQ+ experiences are currently only required to be taught in 11 states and D.C.; Washington’s proposed sex-ed reform “must use language and strategies that avoid discrimination against any student,” though it doesn’t appear to include specific lessons on LGBTQ+ identities.)

Imagine what learning about consent might do to help lower the rate of sexual assault; how learning about LGBTQ+ experiences might decrease the number of anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes; what learning about healthy relationships could do to lower to the rate of domestic violence. Even just straightforward sex ed on pregnancy and STD prevention can help young people lead healthy, fulfilling lives.

And yet, House Republicans in Washington state are largely opposed to the reform. Many are concerned that the content could be inappropriate for certain age groups and, as a result, could sexualize young children. On the flip side, the Washington legislators backing the reform — including reproductive health advocates Senator Claire Wilson and Representative Monica Stonier — argue that comprehensive sex ed keeps young people safe by teaching them about their bodies, how to recognize and prevent abuse, and how to respect diversity instead of bullying others. Plus, under the new law, parents and guardians will still have the choice (as they do currently) to exclude their children from the lessons.

Interestingly, when Washington's sex-ed reform was first proposed earlier this year under Senate Bill 5395, it passed Washington's state legislature in March with support from Governor Jay Inslee. But shortly thereafter, Parents for Safe Schools, a state grassroots organization that opposes the law, collected enough signatures for a veto referendum (a.k.a. when voters demand, by petition, a reconsideration or repeal of a new policy or law) on the measure to appear on the state's November 2020 ballot. And thus, Referendum 90 was born.

If Referendum 90 passes, allowing the bill to be upheld, it wouldn’t be the only example of statewide sex-ed reform in recent years. The California Healthy Youth Act was passed in 2016, and it requires school districts to give students medically accurate, unbiased, comprehensive sexual health and HIV prevention education at least once in middle school and once in high school. Before CHYA, only HIV prevention education was required, and any further sexual health education was optional.

To learn more about where sex ed in the U.S. currently stands, where it could go, and how Referendum 90 could impact the rest of the nation's approach, Shape spoke with Sara Flowers, Dr.P.H., vice president of education at Planned Parenthood. Flowers’ work focuses on advocating for inclusive, evidence-informed, and emotionally intelligent sex ed that aims to undo educational disparities across the country and strengthen reproductive health care access.

Sex education Guttmacher Institute
Credit: Julia Bohan

Shape: What does a “typical” sex-ed class in America look like today?

Flowers: It’s important to understand that there’s no “typical” sex ed in the U.S. because the country doesn't have a national program. There’s uneven funding and inconsistency across programs, and what’s available to young people depends on where they live. That variation leads to inequities in the information that’s presented and the skills students learn — and that’s harmful.

Some may have the wrong information or no information. Some people will be well-equipped to have healthy and happy sex and relationships, while others will be left figuring it out themselves throughout their lives, in a culture that often doesn’t support healthy sex and relationships.

Shape: What would an effective sex-ed curriculum look like, in your opinion?

Flowers: My dream for a nationwide framework would include better-funded sex education, implemented by trained sex educators, that meets the needs of all young people. Sex education should include best practices that are medically accurate, evidence-informed, and age- and developmentally appropriate. It should also be trauma-informed, meaning it must be taught with an understanding that both students and educators may have experienced things like interpersonal or sexual violence. That also means related topics such as consent, sexual harassment, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression should be approached sensitively to avoid re-traumatization. One example of a trauma-informed approach is when an educator cultivates a "safe space" for students — reassuring them to honor their needs and boundaries by providing content warnings before activities that could cue trauma, and encouraging participants to take breaks if needed.

Sex education should also be sex-positive, meaning it should be delivered without shame or fear tactics and, instead, center on pleasure. Sex educators understand that sex and sexuality are normal and healthy parts of human development. They're trained to help people develop knowledge based on facts, not judgment.

Additionally, young people need to be able to see themselves in their sex education, so it's critical that programs are LGBTQ+-inclusive, culturally congruent, culturally responsive, and anti-racist. That means classes and activities should relate to and recognize aspects of students' intersecting identities, including race, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, faith, ability, geographic location, and more.

Shape: How does comprehensive sex ed affect long-term health outcomes (i.e. rates of unintended pregnancy, instances of sexual abuse, bullying, etc.)?

Flowers: Research shows that sex education has a positive impact on young people's health and behaviors. After CHYA passed, a study published in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics compared the rates of homophobic bullying in California public schools before and after the legislation, and found that rates decreased after gender-inclusive sex ed was taught. Other studies show that sex education can help prevent sexual abuse, violence, and assault by teaching young people what healthy relationships look and feel like, and giving them opportunities to practice communication skills long before they become sexually active. Teaching folks about their bodies, that they have the right to tell others not to touch them, and how to identify a trusted adult, are all critical to helping them find their voice so they can protect themselves against coercion.

For example, I’m the parent of an 8-year-old. When she was a toddler, people loved to hug her, but I didn’t make her hug anyone. Think about it: Your great auntie will come over, and you know her, but your kid might not know them from a can of paint. So I would tell my child, “You can wave hello. You don't have to hug them.” She chose to embrace some people and wave at others. I didn’t force her to have her body touched when she didn’t want it. And I hope that lesson will serve as a foundation for when she grows up. That’s not sexualizing my toddler, that’s just a foundational lesson she should know: If you don’t want to hug someone, you don’t have to.

It goes to show that there are so many times when parents and caretakers need to be part of sex education, too. We forget what it’s like to be young, so we need resources, too. And one of the unique things about Referendum 90 is that it came from parents. The proposed sex-ed reform passed the state legislature in March, and it would’ve been enacted if not for Parents for Safe Schools' petition to create Referendum 90. Clearly, there’s power in families asserting to the community what they want for young people.

Shape: What else is unique about Referendum 90?

Flowers: It's the first time that a statewide sex education mandate will appear on a ballot.

In terms of the future of sex education, Referendum 90 includes programs for younger elementary school grades. It’s unique because it establishes a floor for age-appropriate social and emotional education by teaching young people how to identify and manage feelings, and how to communicate with friends. That’s a direction the entire country should be moving toward.

Shape: How would you respond to people who oppose Referendum 90 because it’s too “inappropriate” for certain age groups?

Flowers: Recognizing that developmentally appropriate sex education starts with social and emotional learning can help disavow the myth that these programs sexualize kids. Tons of data show that, in fact, age-appropriate sex education helps kids realize their dreams and goals. Sexuality is a completely normal part of humanity and of growing up. The skills you learn in sex education support the health and development of all people, all identities, all experiences, through the lifespan.

Adults, however, tend to hear the term “sex education” and think about it from an adult lens. We have to disrupt that because that’s not what sex education is.

Frankly, many families already teach their children sex education; they just don’t call it that. They answer their kids’ questions about their bodies. Even when kids play with friends, parents and caretakers might ask kids things like, “Did you take that person’s toy without asking?” They’re helping children learn how to share, how to say no. Those skills lay the groundwork for consent, and that knowledge is foundational to the lessons that come later in sex education. We want young people to understand how to assert their boundaries and respect others’. We want them to know the correct names for their body parts. We want them to learn how to tell a trusting adult if somebody hurts them. We want them to know that their voices should be trusted and heard.

And, to be most effective, sex education should be coupled with access to sexual and reproductive health care services (such as abortion, birth control, and STI testing and treatment). Of course, this isn't something most elementary school kids need. But later on, in high school and college when most people become sexually active, we want them to already know how to advocate for themselves, how to ask for what they need. We want to set that foundation for young people, and Washington could serve as a model for standardizing K-12 sex education across the country.

Shape: What if I don't live in Washington, but I still want to support the fight for comprehensive sex ed across the U.S.?

Flowers: Change for sex education happens at the local grassroots level. There’s a real opportunity for adults, parents, guardians, and community members to make their voices heard. When these caretakers make demands on behalf of young people, school boards listen.

It's not just about adults driving change, though. The current generation of young people gives me so much hope for the future — and given our current socio-political environment, that's saying something! For so many kids today, lessons about consent and bodily autonomy are normalized in their upbringing and daily lives. They understand that each person is in charge of their own body. Sex-positive and body-positive families are intentional about helping kids respect themselves and one another. This wave of change coming from our youngest holds the power and potential for the future. Sex education bolsters the foundation and equips young people with a concrete understanding of not just what sexuality and sexual health are, but also how we learn about these things and why it's important to learn. We know that inclusive sex ed helps everyone — not just members of traditionally marginalized groups — to be more respectful citizens and to build a more caring community.

Shape: How can our elected officials move the needle forward?

Flowers: Elected officials have a responsibility to not only speak up but to take actions that will protect and increase access to sex education and sexual and reproductive health care across the country.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is committed to dismantling access and rights to sexual and reproductive health care, and building unnecessary barriers to basic fundamental health care. But caring adults across the country know that young people have the right to medically accurate, evidence-informed, inclusive sex ed and sexual health services. They have the right to develop and use these skills to uplift and protect their health, care for their bodies, access the care they need, and build their futures.

For more information on how, when, and where you can vote this year visit usa.gov/how-to-vote. You can also head to vote.org to find your nearest polling place, request an absentee ballot, verify your registration status, and even get election reminders (so you never miss an opportunity to have your voice heard). Too young to vote this year? Pledge to register, and vote.org will send you a text message on your 18th birthday — because we fought too hard for this right not to use it.