This column originally appeared at Cleveland.com and was written by Rev. Kelly Burd, an Ohio RCRC board member.
A myriad of topics related to human sexuality are making news headlines today: the #MeToo movement shining light on the widespread problem of sexual assault; the payoff scandal involving Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels; celebrities responding to body-shaming snark.
This list most recently includes reports that the Trump administration is redirecting teen pregnancy prevention funds away from programs that provide birth control access and into abstinence-only sex education.
Clearly, matters of human sexuality are being discussed, but this latest decision reveals how productive, healthy, and necessary conversations about sexuality are being silenced.
Abstinence-only sex education is a head-in-the-sand approach to the realities of human life in general, and in particular, for teenagers who are in a life stage that is hormone-laden and often filled with romantic desires, sexual curiosity, and rapidly maturing bodies. Abstinence education overlooks basic truths about human sexual development and teenage life, and it is failing our youth.
As a sexuality educator for the past decade, I have become a committed advocate for comprehensive (medically accurate and developmentally appropriate) sexuality education as the best possible approach to empowering youth and preventing unintended teen pregnancy. There are too many reasons to capture here, but following are three:
- Comprehensive sexuality education lays a foundation for students to recognize and engage in healthy relationships.
Contrary to popular thought, good sexuality education encompasses much more than human biology and discussions about sexual activity. It offers interpersonal skills and self-knowledge, both being important for navigating relationships. Programs for pre-adolescent children teach medically accurate words for body parts and help them recognize basic attributes of healthy relationships, such as respect and kindness. They address physical boundaries, giving students knowledge to recognize unwanted touch and predatory behaviors and to seek help from trusted adults. Programs for teens address body changes, but also help them to critique our culture's hypersexualization of bodies and affirm the diversity of human bodies — shapes, sizes, and rates of development during puberty — responding helpfully to the pervasive "Am I normal?" questions of the teenage experience.
- Comprehensive sexuality education more effectively prevents unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
This approach advocates abstinence as the healthiest choice for teenagers, yet recognizes their agency to choose otherwise, and teaches accordingly. A 2008 article from HealthDay News ("Sex Ed can Help Prevent Teen Pregnancy") reported that teenagers who took comprehensive sex education were 60 percent less prone than their peers to get pregnant or to impregnate someone else, according to a study at the University of Washington. The study's lead author further reported "there was no evidence to suggest that abstinence-only education decreased the likelihood of ever having sex or getting pregnant." Comprehensive education means students receive medically accurate information about a range of contraceptive options and how they are used. They receive opportunities to think through peer pressure scenarios in social and romantic situations, learn the necessity of mutual consent, and discover the power of communicating with potential partners. They are offered safe space to ask questions about sexuality and relationships. These aspects of sexuality education help teenagers to become informed, thoughtful, responsible young adults who can think for themselves and take care of themselves.
- Good comprehensive sexuality education reflects the diversity of human sexuality.
Contrary to outdated programs that work exclusively from the paradigm of a straight male and female in the context of marriage, effective sex education avoids emphasizing heterosexuality as a universal experience. Teenagers in comprehensive sex education receive medically accurate information about sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as part of the diversity of human beings and human sexuality. Understanding that diversity helps students to dismantle myths, false stereotypes, fears, and assumptions about sexually diverse people and about what is normative. It also allows those who are LGBTQ to recognize themselves and their own experiences within the conversation and program. Inclusivity in sexuality education is essential to youth as they ponder and discover their own identity.
In my years as a sexuality educator (using "Our Whole Lives," a program co-published by the United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist Association), I have seen more than enough benefits of comprehensive sexuality education to justify advocating for it. Comprehensive sex education not only reduces unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, it also contributes to a culture of acceptance and equips youth with the knowledge they need to keep their bodies safe and healthy. It is no exaggeration to say that comprehensive sexuality education saves lives.
My hope is that our society will stop failing youth with the ineffective tools of shaming and silence utilized by abstinence-only education and demand comprehensive sexuality education. Let's empower our youth with the knowledge and skills they need to make important decisions about their bodies and lives — through adolescence and well into adulthood.