The need for sex education in American schools cannot be over-emphasized. Sex education helps people gain the information, skills and motivation to make healthy decisions about sex and sexuality.
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Facts About Comprehensive Sex Education
Sex education is high quality teaching and learning about a broad variety of topics related to sex and sexuality. It also involves exploring values and beliefs about sex topics. Sex education as well covers gaining the skills that are needed to navigate relationships and manage one’s own sexual health.
Sex education may take place in schools, in community settings, or online. We believe that parents play a critical and central role in providing sex education.
What is the scope of comprehensive sex education?
Comprehensive sexuality education refers to K-12 programs that cover a broad range of topics related to:
#1. Human Development (including reproduction, puberty, sexual orientation, and gender identity)
#2. Relationships (including families, friendships, romantic relationships and dating)
#3. Personal Skills (including communication, negotiation, and decision-making)
#4. Sexual Behavior (including abstinence and sexuality throughout life)
#5. Sexual Health (including sexually transmitted diseases, contraception, and pregnancy)
#6. Society and Culture (including gender roles, diversity, and sexuality in the media)
Several important resources to guide comprehensive sexuality education implementation includes:
#1. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education was developed by a national task force of experts in the field of adolescent development, health care, and education. They provide a framework of the key concepts, topics, and messages that all sexuality education programs would ideally include.
#2. The Future of Sex Education Initiative (FoSE) seeks to create a national dialogue about the future of sex education. It also seek to promote the institutionalization of comprehensive sexuality education in public schools. They have developed the first-ever National Sexuality Education Standards, National Teacher Preparation Standards. Also developed are many additional toolkits and materials to strengthen comprehensive sexuality education implementation and professional development.
What is Comprehensive Sexuality Education?
Comprehensive sexuality education is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to:
#1. realize their health, well-being and dignity;
#2. develop respectful social and sexual relationships;
#3. consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others; and
#4. understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.
Why do young people need comprehensive sexuality education?
Too many young people receive confusing and conflicting information about relationships and sex, as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood. This has led to an increasing demand from young people for reliable information, which prepares them for a safe, productive and fulfilling life.
When delivered well, CSE responds to this demand, empowering young people to make informed decisions about relationships and sexuality and navigate a world where gender-based violence, gender inequality, early and unintended pregnancies, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) still pose serious risks to their health and well-being.
Equally, a lack of high-quality, age- and developmentally-appropriate sexuality and relationship education may leave children and young people vulnerable to harmful sexual behaviours and sexual exploitation.
CSE plays a crucial role in addressing the health and well-being of children and young people. Applying a learner-centered approach, CSE not only provides children and young people with age-appropriate and phased education on human rights, gender equality, relationships, reproduction, sexual behaviours, risks and prevention of ill health, but also provides an opportunity to present sexuality with a positive approach, emphasizing values such as respect, inclusion, non-discrimination, equality, empathy, responsibility and reciprocity.
What does the evidence say about CSE?
There is significant evidence on the impact of sexuality education. It emphasizes that:
- Sexuality education has positive effects, including increasing young people’s knowledge and improving their attitudes related to sexual and reproductive health and behaviors.
- Sexuality education – in or out of schools – does not increase sexual activity, sexual risk-taking behaviour or STI/HIV infection rates.
- Programmes that promote abstinence as the only option have been found to be ineffective in delaying sexual initiation, reducing the frequency of sex or reducing the number of sexual partners. Programmes that combine a focus on delaying sexual activity with other content are effective.
- ‘Gender-focused’ programmes are substantially more effective than ‘gender-blind’ programmes at achieving health outcomes such as reducing rates of unintended pregnancy or STIs.
- Sexuality education has the most impact when school-based programmes are complemented with the involvement of parents and teachers, training institutes and youth-friendly services.
Importance of sex education
Countries are increasingly acknowledging the importance of equipping young people with knowledge and skills to make responsible choices for their lives. CSE supports young people’s empowerment by improving their analytical, communication and other life skills for health and well-being in relation to sexuality, human rights, values, healthy and respectful relationships, cultural and social norms, gender equality, non-discrimination, sexual behaviour, violence and gender-based violence, consent, sexual abuse and harmful practices.
What is new in the revised Guidance?
The original international technical Guidance published in 2009 positioned sexuality education primarily as part of the HIV response. However, while HIV prevention remains important, evidence and practice demonstrate that sexuality education has a much broader relevance to other issues, not only for young people’s sexual and reproductive health but also for their overall wellbeing and personal development.
The revised Guidance presents sexuality with a positive approach, recognizing that CSE goes beyond educating about reproduction, risks and disease. It reaffirms the position of sexuality education within a framework of human rights and gender equality.
It and reflects the contribution of sexuality education to the realization of several internationally agreed commitments in relation to sexual and reproductive health, as well as the achievement of the goals in the 2030 Agenda in relation to health and well-being, quality and inclusive education, gender equality and women and girls empowerment.
Sex Education in Schools in the United States of America
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 Journal of Adolescent HealthExternal link:open_in_new 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 infections.
“Sex education is about life skills,” said Elizabeth Nash, interim associate director of state issues at the Guttmacher Institute.External link:open_in_new “There are so many aspects you take with you for the rest of your life, but you only get it once or twice in school.”
Of course, many young students pick up sexual health information from sources other than school: parents, peers, medical professionals, social media and pop culture. However, public school is the best opportunity for adolescents to access formal information. So what happens when that information isn’t regulated by the state? Teachers are left to interpret vague legislative guidelines, meaning information might not be accurate or unbiased.
While only about half of states in the U.S. require sex education, only fewer states have legislation requiring medical accuracy, inclusive language, and information about contraception.
What are the benefits of delivering sexual health education to students?
The benefits of sex education are enormous. Evidence-based sexual health education can:
#1. improve academic success;
#2. prevent dating violence, and bullying;
#3. help youth develop healthier relationships;
#4. delay sexual initiation;
#5. reduce unplanned pregnancy, HIV, and other STIs; and
#6. reduce sexual health disparities among LGBTQ youth
In addition to the above, other benefits of sex education include:
#1. Students with sex education would characteristically have delay in initiation of sexual intercourse
#2. Sex education discourages having multiple sex partners
#3. It also discourages unprotected sex
#4. Increase their use of protection, specifically condoms
#5. Evidence-based sex education also Improve academic performance.
In addition to providing knowledge and skills to address sexual behavior, quality Sexual Health Education programs can be tailored to include information on high-risk substance use*, suicide prevention, and how to keep students from committing or being victims of violence—behaviors and experiences that place youth at risk for poor health and academic outcomes.
High-risk substance use is any use by adolescents of substances with a high risk of adverse outcomes (i.e., injury, criminal justice involvement, school dropout, loss of life). This includes misuse of prescription drugs, use of illicit drugs (i.e., cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, inhalants, hallucinogens, or ecstasy), and use of injection drugs (i.e., drugs that have a high risk of infection of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis).
What does delivering sex education look like in action?
To successfully put quality SHE into practice, schools need supportive policies, appropriate content, trained staff, and engaged parents and communities. Schools can put these four elements in place to support SHE.
Implement policies that foster supportive environments for sex education
- Identify existing state, district, and school policies on health education and SHE for all students.
- Establish a skills-based health education course requirement—which includes SHE content—for all middle and high school students.
Use health content that is medically accurate, developmentally appropriate, culturally inclusive, and grounded in science
- Develop a SHE scope and sequence document† that identifies behavioral and learning outcomes for all middle and high school students.
- Develop or select a SHE curriculum—consistent with the approved scope and sequence—that includes instructional lessons, student activities, resources, and assessment strategies. CDC’s Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (HECAT) is a great resource to develop, select, and revise curricula.
- Promote the use of teaching tools and resources—for example, pacing guides or specific lesson plans—to continuously improve SHE content and delivery.
Equip staff with the knowledge and skills needed to deliver SHE
- Seek feedback from teachers, staff, students, and administrators within the school about what critical knowledge and skills are needed to effectively deliver SHE.
- Identify a set of instructional competencies—the essential knowledge and teaching skills—that those delivering SHE should know and be able to demonstrate during instruction.
- Use the identified instructional competencies to design, implement, and evaluate teacher and staff professional development and training. These trainings can improve teachers’ knowledge and comfort with the subject matter and use of effective teaching skills needed for SHE.
Engage parents and community partners in sex education
- Create School Health Advisory Councils (SHACs), or similar committees, that regularly provide district-level guidance on the school health program for students and staff. Within SHE, a SHAC can make valuable recommendations to strengthen curriculum or professional development and training opportunities for staff.
- Use strategies to actively engage families and communities in school health programs, explicitly gaining their feedback on SHE curricula through participation on the SHACs.
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