September 18, by Nursing USC Staff When only 13 states in the nation require sex education to be medically accurate, a lot is left up to interpretation in teenage health literacy. Research published by the Public Library of Science shows that when sex education is comprehensive, students feel more informed, make safer choices and have healthier outcomes — resulting in fewer unplanned pregnancies and more protection against sexually transmitted diseases and infection.
However, public schools are the best opportunity for adolescents to access formal information. Teachers are left to interpret vague legislative guidelines, meaning information might not be accurate or unbiased. The chart below compares the legislative policies of all 50 states, including how they mandate specific aspects of sex education like contraception, abstinence and sexual orientation. Read the text-only version of these graphics here. Even when sex education is required, state policies still vary widely regarding the inclusion of critical information.
Theresa Granger says that comprehensive sex ed goes beyond the biophysical aspects. Granger said that in order to be comprehensive, sex education programs have to consider the whole student. But many states leave issues like sexual orientation and contraception unaddressed, and some even prohibit public schools from addressing them. It can take years for policies to change, even in the most progressive states. Before the new law went into effect last January , California left sex education as an optional component of health curricula for students in grades 7 through The legislation is part of a nationwide trend — albeit a slow and deliberate one — to transform disjointed sex education laws into comprehensive requirements that lead to better health outcomes for adolescents in public schools, according to Nash, who has tracked sex education policies for over a decade.
Other states have a more volatile history with regulating sex education. Two years later it was replaced with today's abstinence-only policy.
In recent years, states have begun to mandate sex ed to include information about life skills for family communication, avoiding coercion and making healthy decisions. According to Nash, including these skills is part of progressive trends across the country, where states have begun to require discussions of sexual consent, harassment and sexual orientation. Overall, most trends are slow to change. Health Outcomes The impact of sex education policies becomes more clear when considering that in , the United States had higher rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease than most other industrialized countries.
What feels like progress at the state level can be seen as mere catch-up to the policies of other developed nations that require teachers to discuss sex ed as early as kindergarten.
Granger said school programs need to work on adapting to current health issues and trends that affect the scope of sexual health literacy. Even though the U. Research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded that when sex education included information about contraception, teens had a lower risk of pregnancy than adolescents who received abstinence-only or no sex education. The findings could alleviate a common fear of parents and teachers who worry that students are more likely to increase their sexual activity after receiving comprehensive sex education.
The more teens can access accurate information from a trusted provider, the more prepared they can be when making decisions about their bodies and relationships. Granger said that in her clinical experience, teens will make a decision to engage in sexual activity whether or not they feel adequately informed, leaving health professionals with an opportunity to promote sexual health literacy. According to the CDC , teens who identify with LGBTQ communities can be at higher risk of contracting STDs, but safeguarding against transmissions becomes difficult when states prohibit teachers from discussing sexual orientation in class.
Some states expect that sexual orientation will get discussed at home, but the reality is that many students feel they lack the relationships to comfortably ask parents, teachers or peers about health information related to orientation. Though this loophole is disappearing in some states like Tennessee, it allows students to stay engaged in discussions that would otherwise exclude them because of focus on heterosexual relationships.
But discrepancies persist across communities over the responsibility of providing meaningful sex education. Teachers feel pressure from parents to deliver just the right amount of information, but students tune out when educators fail to address their individual questions. So whose responsibility is it to make sure young people have the information they need to make healthy choices? She currently practices in Washington, one of few states that allows minors to seek testing and treatment for STDs , as well as contraception, without consent from a parent or guardian.
Though the conversations can be difficult, she said acknowledging the awkwardness can alleviate the tension around discussions of sexual health for parents and their children. Sometimes the best place to start can be asking teenage patients to talk about what they already know. We need to educate teens whenever and wherever they are.