In light of the #MeToo Movement and the allegations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh, many educators and students are looking at how youth are taught about consent and healthy sexual relationships in primary school.
A study published in May by the Center for American Progress shows that only eight states are required to address consent and healthy relationships in sex education curriculum. In the conclusion, researchers write that policymakers should create comprehensive sex education that includes topics like healthy relationships, intimacy, consent and sexual assault prevention.
“Without formal and comprehensive sex education that includes this information, states are missing a prime opportunity to arm young people with quality information that would help them make safe, healthy choices,“ the study reads.
Though the Center for American Progress advocates for comprehensive sex education, only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, according to research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute. The same study also found that 27 states are required to focus on information about abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM).
Proponents of AOUM sex ed programs argue that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). However, a 2017 study from the Journal of Adolescent Health demonstrated that AOUM sex ed programs are not successful in reducing pregnancy or STD rates.
In the study’s abstract, researchers wrote that, “The weight of scientific evidence finds that AOUM programs are not effective in delaying initiation of sexual intercourse or changing other sexual risk behaviors. AOUM programs, as defined by U.S. federal funding requirements, inherently withhold information about human sexuality and may provide medically inaccurate and stigmatizing information.”
While many researchers agree that AOUM programs are ineffective, some policymakers still promote them. In 2017, Congress allocated about $90 million to fund those programs. In July 2017, the Trump administration also cut off funds to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which examines and implements public health strategies to reduce teen pregnancy.
Though lawmakers in Missouri, Rhode Island and Maryland recently passed legislation requiring sex ed programs to cover consent, it is unclear whether these efforts will become a nationwide trend.
Lawmakers must consider several questions, such as: When is it appropriate to introduce conversations about sex? Should sex ed programs cover topics like birth control, sexual orientation and consent? These questions draw little consensus from activists on both sides of the debate. Like other issues at the intersection of science and politics, the future of sex education in the U.S. is unclear.