The Ever-Evolving State of Sexuality Education


In our most recent Sex Ed in the News roundup, we mentioned that, in his proposed budget for 2017, President Barack Obama suggested eliminating a $10 million-a-year grant from the Department of Health and Human Services that funds abstinence-only education programs. If this proposed budget were to pass as-is, it would mark an amazing shift in the state of sex education in the United States. Over the past 25 years, Congress has spent more than $1.5 billion on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

Despite our country’s historical fiscal choices related to sex ed, this shift makes sense. No study in a professional, peer-reviewed journal has ever foundabstinence-only-until-marriage programs to be effective. So why does this last-ditch effort to defund abstinence-only programs feel like such a long shot?

The Birth of Modern Sex Education

In a conversation I once had with Heather Boonstra, Director of Public Policy for the Guttmacher Institute, she spoke of how sex education as we now know it grew out of a need in the ’60s and ’70s to solve the growing rates of teen pregnancy and, later on, HIV and AIDS. Considering this, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many sex ed curricula focus in on the negative repercussions of sexual activity, rather than the logistics of having safer sex or, heaven forbid, enjoying it.

Still, the federal government wasn’t very much involved in sex education until the creation of a small chastity program, which died out but eventually led to the Title V State Abstinence Education Grant Program. Billions of dollars in federal money have been spent on this program over the course of a decade. It promotes abstinence until marriage and talks about contraception only in terms of their failure rates. In the years since this program launched, it has been found that these programs are ineffective and, because of this, our government has also set aside money for education programs that utilize more evidence-based approaches. But there have been many who have resisted an abandonment of abstinence-only education and so, over the years, both types of programs have continued to receive federal funding. Which has left the United States following a bifurcated system, with decisions about sex ed curricula being made on a district by district basis.

How Things Have Shaken Out in the Years Since

The Guttmacher Institute recently updated a brief they maintain on state-level sex and HIV education policies, in addition to each state’s specific content requirements. In this most recent iteration of the brief, you can learn a few choice statistics about the state of sex education across the country.

For one, only 23 states—plus the District of Columbia—mandate sex education. Only 27 states—and the District of Columbia—mandate that, when sex education is provided, it must meet certain general requirements. Of these 27 states, 13 require that the instruction be medically accurate. 18 states—and the District of Columbia—require that information on contraception be provided. And a full 25 states require that abstinence be stressed. You can find more fun facts within the document itself, including a breakdown of these statistics by state.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has also published information about state policies on their website, providing more in-depth information on the legislature adopted within each state. This information was last updated on February 16.

What the Future Might Hold

As stated on our website, the Center for Sex Education (CSE) is “dedicated to the proposition that all people have a right to education that will help them understand, appreciate, and take responsibility for their sexuality.” In his proposed federal budget for 2017, President Obama has removed all funding for abstinence-only education, and many people see this movement toward a wider definition of sexual health as a positive sign.

In a response to Obama’s decision, The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) issued a statement in which they express their gratitude to the President for his “leadership in seeking to end abstinence-only-until-marriage funding once and for all. After three decades and nearly $2 billion in federal spending wasted on this failed approach, the President’s proposed budget increases support for programs and efforts that seek to equip young people with the skills they need to ensure their lifelong sexual health and well-being.”

Of course, Congress has until the start of the new fiscal year—October 1—to debate this cut. And this isn’t the first time Obama has proposed that abstinence-only education be defunded, only to have GOP members of Congress block his recommendations.

So it remains to be seen what lies ahead, even in the immediate future.

(image by Chris Potter, via Flickr)