Jan 23, 2024 Sarah duRivage-Jacobs 10 min
Most people who went through middle or high school in the U.S. are well aware that sex ed can be… lacking, to put it mildly. I, for one, remember that scene in Mean Girls far better than I remember my own experience.
Still, you may be surprised by just how bad sex ed in this country continues to be. Only three states require comprehensive sex ed, which “seeks to equip young people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values they need to determine and enjoy their sexuality — physically and emotionally, individually and in relationships.” Only 18 states require that the information being taught is medically accurate.
These statistics beg the question: What exactly are schools teaching in sex ed? Since there’s no national standardization of programming, it’s a mixed bag. And, as far as the Origin team knows, pelvic health — which goes beyond birth control and STIs to include basic pelvic anatomy and healthy sexual functioning — is largely, if not completely, missing.
To discover where we currently stand and how we got here, we dove into the research to learn about the long and complicated history of sex education in the U.S. You won’t be surprised to hear that it's steeped in sexism and racism — and has been shaped and reshaped by political agendas.
Let's start with what’s going on today.
According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), only California, Oregon, and Washington have laws that require schools to teach comprehensive sex ed, aka the kind that helps kids "determine and enjoy their sexuality."
In other states, the goals and content of sex ed differ widely, as revealed in a survey by the Guttmacher Institute.
Only half the states plus DC require both sex ed and HIV/AIDs education in schools. What's worse is that not all information taught in sex ed is required to be medically accurate, leaving students potentially misinformed about a topic that can already be confusing and embarrassing to learn about.
Many states continue to focus on abstinence rather than contraception, despite the fact that discussing contraception isn’t associated with increased risk of sexual activity, pregnancy, or STDs.
All youth, regardless of how they identify, deserve medically accurate, age-appropriate education that supports their sexual health — but the numbers make it clear that this isn’t happening.
Most sex ed today has expanded to cover related issues in an effort to keep teens safe.
As you'd imagine, opinions vary from county to county and state to state. That said, according to a recent national survey, American parents are overall very in favor of comprehensive sex education.
Based on all of these stats, it's clear that the current state of sex ed in America is inadequate. So how did sex ed get so messed up?
The very first sex information lectures in the US were hosted by "social hygienists" in the 1900s. They sought to control sexual behavior by enforcing certain norms and leveraging shame and the threat of sexually transmitted disease. Much about sex education has changed from those early lectures, but three things have stayed true throughout.
The social hygienists and those who came after them to shape sex ed were driven by fears of:
Since the start, sex ed has promoted the idea that withholding information about contraception and idealizing abstinence will stop people from engaging in sexual activities.
Social hygiene sex ed taught young white men that white, male, middle class sexuality was the norm — and anything else was unhealthy. According to Courtney Shah, author of Sex Ed, Segregated, sex education in the early to mid 20th century “was rife with eugenics language about improving the race… And it was used to justify existing political hierarchies.”
This white superiority has continued into the modern era. In the 1990s, “welfare reform” efforts led to a new channel for federal funding in support of abstinence-only sex-ed programs. That may sound innocent on the surface, but both “welfare reform” and abstinence-only sex-ed programs historically promoted racist and eugenic ideologies.
Today, “sexual risk avoidance” programs often include “poverty prevention” as a goal. In this context, though, “poverty prevention” puts all responsibility on the individual and their sexual behaviors and ignores systemic barriers to economic stability.
Every year in the U.S., more than 40 million women suffer from symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction that range from pain with intercourse to bladder and bowel issues. Due to little or no in-school education and lack of conversations about sex and anatomy at home, many adolescent and adult people assigned female at birth have major gaps in knowledge when it comes to pelvic health.
Open discussion of pelvic anatomy and health in any arena has been restricted by the stigmatization of female sexuality, the medical focus on disease rather than wellness, and the dearth of research investigating female bodies. One notable example is the general awareness of clitoral anatomy. It wasn’t until 2005 that Australian urologist Helen O’Connell identified, described, and published the complete structure of the clitoris.
There are countless benefits to knowing pelvic anatomy and how the muscles, connective tissues, and pelvic organs all work together to support bladder, bowel, and sexual health, including:
As advocates continue to push for standardized, comprehensive sex ed for all, we hope to see a stronger focus on pelvic anatomy and health. Although SIECUS’s Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education offer many important recommendations for more inclusive and affirming sex-ed instruction, there are several limitations from our perspective:
Updating sexual education to include pelvic health — or, better yet, reimagining sex ed in a way that will allow us to move away from its sexist and racist history — has the potential to empower new generations with a more complete and positive relationship to their bodies.