Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

A Call to Revamp Sexual Education Policy in the United States

By Isabella HarnickPublished December 8, 2018

The birds and the bees
Research shows that by including topics of contraceptive methods and consent in our health education, we can prevent sexual abuse and unintended teenage pregnancies. Despite this, the majority of states are failing to mention these issues, resulting in the highest teen pregnancy rate of industrialized nations and the need for movements like #MeToo.

In the wake of recent sexual harassment scandals, the #MeToo movement, and the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearing, the issue of consent is increasingly a topic in need of discussion and clarification. While middle and high school health classes provide the perfect venue for these conversations to be had, only 10 states and the District of Columbia discuss “sexual assault,” “consent,” or “healthy relationships”  in their sexual education programs. Research has found that almost all students are receiving sexual education; however, the subject matter often varies by school and state, meaning that their effectiveness often does as well.

Nationwide, the proportion of pregnant teens each year has fallen dramatically: From 2007 to 2013, the number of pregnant teens fell annually by 38.4 percent. This drop has occurred at the same time as a significant drop in the abortion rate, indicating that the reduction in the number of babies born to teens is not related to an increase in terminated pregnancies. While this improvement is undeniably great from a public health perspective, the teen pregnancy rate of the U.S., when compared to industrialized countries, still remains substantially higher with  significant disparities  continuing to persist across racial, ethnic, and geographic lines.

The Society for Adolescent Medicine has declared that “abstinence-only programs threaten fundamental human rights to health, information, and life.” Recent research reveals that abstinence-only education results in decreased use of contraceptives, increasing the risk of unintended pregnancy and STIs. .However, despite this, abstinence-only messages still persist in American sexual education and are a likely contributor to the relatively high teen pregnancy rate still seen today. The Guttmacher Institute recently reported that 37 states require that abstinence messages be included in classrooms and only 18 require HIV information be provided. As a result, only about half of adolescents receive sexual education about contraception before becoming sexually active, according to a study from the National Institutes of Health.

As many states in the U.S. continue to use non-evidence based sexual education programs, the Netherlands has shifted more and more toward comprehensive education. As a result, the Netherlands now outperforms most countries in terms of sexual-health outcomes. While data shows that Dutch and American teenagers are starting to have sex at the same age—between 17 and 18—the results are dramatically different: American teenagers give birth at five times the rate as Dutch teens—with even fewer abortions taking place in the Netherlands. With regards to STIs, teens in the U.S. account for half of all new STI cases every year, while teens in the Netherlands only are responsible for 10 percent. Overall, the youth are less likely to sleep around, more likely to communicate with their partners, and more likely to report feeling sexually satisfied.

The evidence is clear that comprehensive sex education programs that provide information about contraception can cause teens to delay the onset of sexual activity, reduce their number of partners, and increase their use of contraception once sexually active. In addition, starting sexual education early on has been proven to prevent sexual abuse later on in life. Teen pregnancy poses great social, health, and financial costs. Only about half of teen mothers earn a high school diploma, as compared to about 90 percent of women who are not teen mothers.The reduction in teen births has amounted to $4.4 billion in public spending being saved each year. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the federal government to instate policies requiring that certain topics—including consent and various contraceptive methods—be discussed in sex education across all states. Only then can we say that we have done all we can to ensure the safety and health of our youth.