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Sexual Education in the United States

Sep. 8, 2016
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The United States needs better sex education in schools across the board. Although comprehensive sexual education instruction has been proven to reduce teen pregnancy, there are no mandatory sexual education program requirements among all states. Nationwide, the overall current rate of sexually transmitted infections (STI) among teenagers is very high. This indicates that omitting information about condoms and safe-sex methods from sexual education curriculum is not making teenagers abstain. Our nation’s children need to hear all of their options regarding sex so that they can make an intelligent, informed decision. 

STIs and Teenagers

Currently, not all states require that their school systems provide a comprehensive, medically-accurate sexual education curriculum. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures: 

  • 22 states and the District of Columbia require sexual education in public schools
  • 33 states and the District of Columbia require that information about HIV/AIDS be included in the public school sexual education curriculum
  • 19 states require that the sexual education curriculum be medically, technically, or factually accurate, according to medical professionals

The lack of comprehensive, medically-accurate sexual education instruction in all schools nationwide may be related to the disproportionately high STI rates among young people. Although youth ages 15 to 24 represent only 25% of the sexually active population, they acquire at least 50% of all new STIs (National Conference of State Legislatures). Teens are being taught about what STIs are, but not about prevention methods.  

Contraception is not Always Being Taught 

Much of the sexual education instruction being provided in schools across America is ineffective and not thorough. Since 1981, the government has been providing both public and private schools with funding for ‘abstinence only until marriage’ sexual education instruction. Since the government is providing this money, the schools that accept these funds must adhere to a curriculum that teaches: 1) sex outside of marriage will damage your physical and mental health, and 2) abstinence is the only way to avoid getting pregnant or contracting an STI (SIECUS, 2011). 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 93% of young people ages 15 to 19 receive formal instruction about STIs and HIV and 84% learn about abstinence. However, a third of teens have never had any formal instruction about contraception. Many sexually experienced teens (46% of males and 33% of females) do not receive formal instruction about contraception before their first sexual experience. At the time of high school graduation, 41% of teens reported knowing very little about condoms, and 75% had never been introduced to the birth control pill (Guttmacher Institute). This lack of information regarding contraception is not decreasing sexual activity among teens or forcing abstinence; but as mentioned before, it is increasing the prevalence of STIs among teens because they are not learning about condoms and contraception. 

Abstinence-Only Programs Do Not Deter Teen Pregnancy

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that teen pregnancy is at its lowest since the organization began recording this information in 1940; they attribute this decline to pregnancy prevention efforts (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Furthermore, a University of Washington study revealed that teenagers who received some type of comprehensive sex education were 60% less likely to get pregnant or get someone else pregnant. Adversely, a federal report revealed that abstinence-only programs had no impact on sexual abstinence rates (Beadle). 

While the teen birth rate is declining nationwide and at its lowest on record, that is not the case for states with only abstinence-only sexual education instruction. To the contrary, states with abstinence-only sexual education have the highest teen pregnancy rates. For example: Mississippi (55 out of every 1,000) and New Mexico (53 out of every 1,000) have the highest and second highest teen pregnancy rates in America, respectively (Beadle, 2012). Mississippi does not require sex education in schools, but when it is taught, abstinence-only education is the state standard. New Mexico does not require sexual education either, and has no requirements on what should be included when it is taught. Compare these numbers to New Hampshire, which offers comprehensive, medically accurate sexual education: just 16 births out of every 1,000 teens (Beadle, 2012).


The United States needs to unify on its position on sexual education if we are to maintain a decrease in teen pregnancy, achieve a decrease in teen STI prevalence, and increase teenage safe-sex practices nationwide. Teaching abstinence-only does not improve abstinence rates among teens, and it simply deprives our youth from being fully informed about the responsibilities that come with sex. Our nation is doing our children an injustice by not teaching them this information. 

Comprehensive sexual education has been proven to improve teenage pregnancy rates. Young people should be informed of all options, not just abstinence. If abstinence-only programs were working, states like Mississippi and New Mexico would not have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. Abstinence-only programs are not helping; they are only sending our teens out into the world ill-prepared and ill-informed. The schools systems of the United States need to provide young people with all options in order for them to make an informed, intelligent decision about sex. 

Cover Image by Jodeci Zimmerman