Sex Education In the U.S. Is Broken—Sustain Wants to Fix It
Introducing Sexpect More, a completely free sex education curriculum by Sustain launching later this year.
If there's anything Mean Girls, Sex Education, or Big Mouth has taught us, it's that our lacking sex education curriculum makes for great entertainment. Thing is, there's absolutely nothing entertaining about the fact that kids are not being taught the medically-thorough information they need to make informed choices about their body.
Sustain—a company best-known for its natural tampons, condoms, and lubricants—is here to show just how unfunny it is. Today the company kicked off a new campaign called Sexpect More with a video (read: rallying cry) featuring 20 influential voices candidly sharing what they wish they had been taught in sex ed class. The goal: to highlight just how dire the state of sex education really is in the United States and to start an honest conversation about what it could really look like.
Read on for some shocking stats about sex education in the United States. Plus, the inspiring way Sustain is working to improve it.
First, the Stats On Sex Ed
If you remember gagging at graphic photos of untreated sexually transmitted diseases or wincing as a wailing mother was ripped apart from the inside as an even-louder baby wailed into existence, you're one of the (and I hate to say it) lucky ones, who had any semblance of sex education at all.
As of June 15, 2020, only 28 states and the federal district of Washington DC require sex education and HIV education, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a leading research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights in the U.S. and globally. Yep, barely more than half. Even worse: Of these states, only 17 require their sex education curriculum to be medically accurate. In other words, it is perfectly legal for educators to get up there and dispel lies.
And because a number of factors impact the exact education a student receives—including state and federal funding, state laws and sex ed standards, school district-level policies and standards regarding curricula and content, the program or curriculum of an individual school and the specific instructor teaching the program—the sex ed experience can vary dramatically, even in states or districts that do mandate it, according to the Advocates for Youth.
Just as shocking: Only five states say the topic of consent needs to be in their sex education curriculum. "This is just appalling, embarrassing, and needs to change now more than ever," says writer, performer, and speaker Alok Menon, author of Beyond The Gender Binary, in the Sustain video. (Related: What Is Consent, Really? Plus, How and When to Ask for It)
Why Does Quality Sex Education Matter?
For starters, as experience or logic might tell you: Abstinence-only sex education doesn't keep kids from having sex. All it does is keep kids from engaging in safer or protected sex. Stats on STIs and unwanted teenage pregnancy back this up: According to research published by the International Journal of STDs and AIDs, states with abstinence-only programs have higher rates of sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea and chlamydia among adolescents. And rates of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies are also higher (specifically, twice (!) as high) in populations where kids get sex education curriculums that stress abstinence-only.
It's not rocket science: Without adequate or medically accurate information at their disposal, teens don't get a comprehensive picture of the potential risks (nor pleasures!) of sex. And as a result, they literally can't make health-informed, risk-aware decisions or take the necessary precautions to reduce those risks.
But more than that, any abstinence-only programs often end up preaching monogamy, good ol' fashioned "family values," and the nuclear family structure. As a result, they end up implicitly and explicitly shaming sexual assault survivors, those who are already sexually active, queer and questioning youth, and even folks from single-guardian households.
Imagine being told that anyone who has pre-marital sex is going to hell when you've already had it. Or, beginning to question your sexuality and being told that P-in-V is the only kind of sex that "counts." These kinds of lessons (from abstinence-focused sex-ed or other cultural messaging) can breed sexual shame or shame related to any sexual thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and attitudes. Meaning, this type of shameful sex ed can leave lasting impacts on a person's ability to have a healthy and enjoyable sex life and/or have a healthy relationship with their body.
And as far as the lack of information around consent goes? As comedian and actress Sydnee Washington says in the campaign video, "Well, that makes a lot of sense, considering the things that are going on." In other words, the country's rampant rape culture is due, at least in part, to the lack of consent being taught in schools. (Related: What Is Consent, Really? Plus, How and When To Ask For It).
Imagining More Comprehensive Sex Education
Comprehensive sex education should go beyond just sharing information about sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. It should cover e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, including anatomy, pleasure, consent, reproductive health, body autonomy, gender expression, sexuality, healthy relationships, mental health, masturbation, and more.
The influencers who are part of Sustain's initiative get even more imaginative about what comprehensive sex education might look like. For instance, in the video, actress and comedian Tiffany Haddish adds: "I wish they taught people that [queefing] happens so that you're not insecure and think that your vagina's broke!" (ICYWW, queefs aren't just vagina farts.) And video producer Freddie Ransom says, "I wish I had learned that masturbation is fine! It's normal! Even healthy and [that you shouldn't] feel shame about it." (While we're on the topic, here are some A masturbation positions to try your, er, hand at.)
Due to an MIA sex education curriculum, many people are forced to go digging for answers elsewhere. Many seek out the care of crisis pregnancy centers, which are often run by religious organizations with alternative motives, online forums like Reddit, which are not fact-checked by docs, or from healthcare providers. While it seems like doctors would be a good source for health info, many doctors aren't prepared to answer their patients' sexual health concerns and questions; research shows that physicians don't speak to teens about sexual health education mainly because they lack training and confidence. In a study investigating how med school prepared physicians to diagnose and treat sexual problems, researchers found that human sexuality was taught as a course in only ~30 percent of schools. (That's one reason why the medical community itself has spoken out time and time again *against* abstinence-only sex education.)
Relying on healthcare providers for sex education is especially risky for patients that are members of minority populations: In a 2019 survey of 450 oncologists published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, only about half of the doctors were confident in their knowledge of the health concerns of lesbian, gay, and bisexual patients populations. A second study shows that Black patients receive, on average, worse care compared to white Americans—preventive, reproductive, and sexual health care all included. (See: LGBTQ+ Healthcare Is Worse Than Their Straight Peers and Why Wellness Pros Need to Be Part of the Conversation About Racism)
Plus, "you can't go to the doctor every time you have a question about something your body is doing or you're going to have a new sexual partner," says Sustain co-founder and president, Meika Hollender. "It's just not realistic."
So if even doctors aren't always a reliable way to fill the gaping holes left by your school's sex ed, where the hell can you go to learn more? Introducing: Sexpect More.
What to Expect from Sexpect More
Sustain's Sexpect More initiative is multi-part. First, the brand is hoping to highlight just how abysmal the country's sex education curriculum is—and thus demand change—by making the above statistics widely own. "Many people just don't know how bad the state of sex ed still is," says Hollender.
Second, the campaign is raising money for Advocates for Youth, an organization fighting for young people's rights to honest sexual health information as well as accessible, confidential, and affordable sexual health care. Sustain is kicking it off with a $25,000 donation, and then for every time their campaign video is shared with the hashtag #sexpectmore, the company will donate an additional $1 to the organization. Ditto goes if you post an answer to the question "what was missing from your sex education?" on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter (just don't forget the hashtag).
Finally, later this year, the brand will be launching its own comprehensive, completely-free, sex education curriculum, based on direct feedback from this campaign video. "This curriculum will be the first step in Sustain's mission to provide more-inclusive, accessible, ongoing sex education to people of all ages," says Hollender.
How to Fight for More Comprehensive Sex Ed
In addition to sharing Sustain's video far and wide, you can exercise your right to vote in local and federal elections. President Donald Trump's administration not only un-did President Barack Obama's work toward more comprehensive sex education but also allocated 75 million dollars to abstinence-only curriculums. That's a shit ton of money going to a program that doesn't work (peep those stats above again), don't you think? (Not sure how to register to vote? Go here.)
That said, while schools can receive federal funding for specific sex education programs, the U.S. Department of Education and the federal government does not have a say over whether sex education (or what type) is mandated in schools; that falls under the jurisdiction of state and local governments and school districts themselves, according to Advocates for Youth. While there's no law currently supporting comprehensive sex ed, there's pending legislation called The Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, which would ensure that federal funding is allocated to comprehensive sexual health education programs that provide young people with the skills and information they need to make informed, responsible, and healthy decisions.
To advocate for better sex education in your area, you can:
- Contact your school board. Urge them to require comprehensive sexual health programs and adopt the National Sexuality Education Standards—guidelines developed by experts in the public health and sexual education fields about the minimum essential content and skills needed to help students make informed decisions about sexual health.
- Join a School Health Advisory Council. Most school boards are advised by School Health Advisory Councils (SHACs), which are comprised of individuals who represent the community and who provide advice about health education.
- Contact your members of Congress. Reach out in person, by phone, or online to urge them to support the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act.
- Research any relevant bills or laws in your state. For example, New York State currently does not require any sex education to be taught in schools. If you're a New Yorker, you can also support the NY State Assembly Bill A6512, which calls for comprehensive, inclusionary, and medically accurate sexuality education in schools in NYS. Just head to this website, click "aye" to vote, add an (optional) note to the New York state senator, and ta-da—in under sixty seconds, you've done the youth of tomorrow a solid. (Here's a list of the sex education legislation by state.)
Where to Learn More About Sex In the Meantime
While you're patiently waiting for Sustain's comprehensive sex education launch, check out these other platforms that are working to fill the sex education gap such as O.School, OMGYes, Scarleteen, Queer Sex Ed, and Afrosexology.
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