Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Importance of Comprehensive Sex and HIV/AIDS Education

By Jenna ZitomerPublished January 1, 2017

The lack of sex and HIV/AIDS education has always been an issue in our country, and is often times a topic of controversy with regards to its place in the classroom. This paper outlines the importance of comprehensive sex and HIV/AIDS education for young adults, touching on the positive and negative effects that are correlated with existence of comprehensive sex education, and the lack of it, respectively.

By Jenna Zitomer  

In the United States, twenty-four states and the District of Columbia mandate comprehensive sex education and/ or HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment instruction, with two of the twenty-four requiring only sex education. Of the mere 27 states that request that sex and/or HIV/ AIDS education be up to par with specific requirements if taught, only 13 of these states require this instruction to be medically accurate. 13 states out of 50, a striking number that indicates the degree to which the our nation does not treasure or understand the value of comprehensive sex education and STI prevention and treatment training, let alone basic sex education and HIV/ AIDS instruction.

As the fully developed country that is most affected by excessively high rates of teen pregnancy and general STI transmissions, the United States lags far behind nation states such as SwedenSwitzerland, and the Netherlands, which maintain some of the world's of the lowest teen pregnancy rates and simultaneously some of the highest quality sex education programs taught in schools. That being said, the United States has yet to realize that "limiting", and even "eliminating", discussions surrounding issues such as safe sex, pleasure, sexuality, teen pregnancy, and STI transmission, prevention, and treatment is not associated with decreases in the instances of high school and college pregnancies and transmissions of both treatable and untreatable sexually transmitted infections. 
So, does abstinence only sex-education or the lack of sex-education have any merit outside of the classroom, or does it only escalate the degree to which young Americans engage in sexual interactions without knowledge of how to protect themselves? Although abstinence-only education stresses that the only sure way to protect oneself from infections, viruses, unwanted pregnancy, and the either negative or positive mental consequences of sexual interaction, which is accurate in its very nature, instruction of this type advocate for unrealistic sexual experiences for the majority of young American students.

In high school and college when students are learning to find themselves and explore their various interests and options, it is commonly understood that sexual interaction and experimentation is an element of this discovery, regardless of its controversial nature. So what is it that is blocking us from properly preparing our students and children for the sexual interactions they will likely have with at least one other person during their life? Are we allowing the very religion that we have, as a nation, preemptively decided to separate from our state regulations and public school educations influence our decisions in such a way that they lead to negative physical outcomes for America's children?
When considering the importance of altering our nation's sex education standards, it is crucial to look at the laws and regulations put forth by each state and how they may positively or negatively affect the levels to which teenagers in those regions experience unwanted or unexpected pregnancies, as well as sexually transmitted diseases. Arkansas, a state which requires neither sex education nor HIV/ AIDS prevention instruction, is in possession of the highest teen pregnancy rate of any state in the country, with a whopping 39.5 births per every 1,000 girls as of 2014. In addition, any sex education that is given in Arkansas public schools must have a strong emphasis on abstinence and stress it to the highest degree, leaving students curious about sexual interactions and unaware of how to approach them.
Alternatively, New Jersey, which holds the fourth lowest teen pregnancy rate 13.1 births for every 1,000 girls, mandates sex and HIV/AIDs comprehensive education and requires that it be medically accurate, age-appropriate, and free of cultural or religious bias. Finally, New Jersey public schools are encouraged not to place a strong emphasis on abstinence but rather so offer it as an option when considering sexual interactions.

With a national average of 24.2 births for every 1,000 girls, the United States maintains a strikingly high teen pregnancy rate when compared to countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden, which maintain rates of 7 births per 1,000 girls and 5 births per 1,000 girls, respectively, and continue to run some of the most high quality comprehensive sex education programs in the world. It is also important to note that 1 in 2 sexually active women and men in the United States become hosts to some sort of sexually transmitted infection by the age of 25.
    So, what is the solution? In an ideal world, the United States should be shifting its outlook on the importance of sex and HIV/ AIDS education, and should not allow this essential instruction to be entirely regulated on a state level. Although it is unrealistic to assume that the nation will enforce a strict policy of teaching comprehensive sex education that covers pleasure, sexuality, HIV/ AIDS, herpes, treatable sexually transmitted infections, contraception and abortion/ STI treatment options, it is not quixotic to mandate that public schools nationwide teach comprehensive sex education in the classroom that is medically accurate and can offer abstinence as an option, but not the only option.

It is also important to take parental consideration into account, and allow for parents to have their children opt-out of comprehensive sex education if it is something that goes against the values of that family. That being said, each parent in the nation should not have to sign a form granting their child's school district consent to teach them about comprehensive sexual education. This would likely lead to less children actually taking a course on sex education.
    All in all, it is clear that abstinence-only sex education and/ or the lack of comprehensive sex education has a positive relationship with the teen pregnancy and STI transmission rates in the United States. So what do we need to do? Understand that knowledge is power, and empower our nation to educate its children on sex and sexually transmitted infections before our country digs itself into a larger epidemic than we are already in.