Since its introduction in the early 1900s, sex education has drawn controversy. The amount of information given to young people—and the appropriate age at which to share that information—is still up for debate. Although the presence of some level of sex education, even if merely couched within the framework of basic hygiene and biology, is almost universally accepted, controversy arises over comprehensive versus abstinence-only programs, the age the programs should start, the roles of parents versus the schools in teaching sexual mores, and whether LGBT sexuality should be included in curricula.
Controversy exists over what information should be given to students. Those promoting the “comprehensive approach” argue that most high school students are (or will be soon) having sex anyway, so the best approach is to equip them with the knowledge and resources to make healthy life decisions and to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), unwanted pregnancies, or unhealthy relationships.
On the other hand, conservatives come from a position believing that sex outside of marriage is wrong, so they push for abstinence-only education. They argue that just because teens are having sex does not mean it should be condoned and accepted. These programs encourage teens to abstain from sexual behaviors until within a marriage relationship and do not teach about safe sex or contraception. Proponents from both sides point to studies upholding or undermining the effectiveness of each approach—and the debate continues within America’s public schools.
Some try to bridge the conflict by suggesting that schools provide the basic facts in an unbiased manner—including sexual anatomy, STIs, contraception options, abstinence as an option, etc—and then make parents responsible for teaching sexual mores to their own children. Others (typically conservatives) argue that teaching certain sexual behaviors implicitly condones them, thereby undermining parents’ freedom to teach their own view of morality in sexual matters. One must ask the question of whether it is possible to discuss such an emotionally-ridded reality in an unbiased manner.
Recent years have introduced a new issue to the discussion—should LGBT sexuality be taught in schools? Supporters argue that including LGBT sexuality in sex education curriculums would provide LGBT students with the health information they need, as well as reduce homophobic bullying by exposing students to different sexual lifestyles. Most sex education courses in American public schools do not currently include LGBT issues. Those who want to keep it this way argue that including it would expose students to a particular political viewpoint, violating parents’ rights to control what their children are exposed to, as well as potentially offending certain religious beliefs.
Globally, sex education has grown in importance in light of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The devastation brought by AIDS—particularly in Africa—has given sex education a sense of urgency, with some calling it a vital public health strategy. AIDS education programs have been adopted by many African governments and are run by the World Health Organization and other international non-profits. Many hope that teaching HIV prevention methods, healthy sexual practices, and educating people on the nature of the disease will reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, as well as begin to reduce the taboo associated with it, thereby encouraging infected individuals to seek help and support.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What was your experience with sex education, both at school and at home? How did it shape your view of sex and sexuality? What do you think was done well—and poorly?
Where do you think the line should be drawn between parents’ rights to teach their own worldviews and sense morality to their children and the responsibility of the public education system?
Do you tend to fall on the comprehensive or abstinence-only side of sex education? What contributes to your perspective/opinion?
In what many would consider an overly-sexualized culture, what do you think the role of sex education should be? How could our approach to sex education contribute to this or seek to temper it?
We cannot escape the discussion of sex in our culture.
Regardless of parents’ opinions on what is taught to their children in school, they should use opportunities at home to teach and encourage their children from their own viewpoint on sex and sexuality. Much good would come about from removing the taboo related to sex in families and creating a place for questions and conversation between children/teens and their parents.
Public sex education programs can be key in fighting the on-going HIV/AIDS crisis in many parts of the world.