Social Justice and Science: Sexual Education in the United States

Hello, dear readers.

I’m sorry about the lack of entry in September. I’m new to freelancing, which is what I’m doing now. Also, job-hunting, which I’m also doing, is its own full-time job. Also, my research for what was supposed to be my September entry didn’t pan out. Much to my frustration, there wasn’t enough information out there for a full entry. I had planned on doing a Social Justice and Science entry on “female” and “male” cancers (breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, etc.) in transgender people. All I was able to find was some information on breast cancer and how HRT for transfeminine people increases the risk for breast cancer and elective double mastectomy for transmasculine people lowers the risk for breast cancer. I could probably go on at length about how unfair that is, but that’s not particularly scientific.

I suppose this entry won’t be as scientific as most either. Well, it is in a way; it’s related to social science. Let’s start with some statistics from the CDC:

  • In 2015, the teen birth rate in the United States fell to 22.3 per 1,000 teenaged people with egg-producing reproductive systems
    • This is a record low, but still higher than other industrialized countries
    • There are still significant disparities between ethnic groups and certain regions
  • Rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and primary, secondary, and congenital syphilis have increased since 2015
    • Young people (15-24) accounted for a disproportionately large portion of new cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis
  • Sexual minority youth are more likely to have certain sexual health problems
    • Young men who have sex with men* have unusually high rates of STDs compared to young cishet people
    • Sexual minority adolescent women** are more likely to have been pregnant than their cishet peers (yes, really)

Where am I going with this? I’m about to heavily criticize sexual education in this country. Let’s start out with discussing how abstinence-only or abstinence-focused sex ed fails everyone.

I’m going to use the state of Georgia as an example. Georgia isn’t the worst state in the nation for sexual health, but it is close; it ranks fourth out of all fifty states in HIV and syphilis infection rates, ninth for chlamydia infection rates, and thirteenth for teen pregnancies. I’m bringing up Georgia because its terrible sexual health (sorry, Georgia) is definitely connected to its abstinence-focused sex ed. Georgia also makes a nice microcosm for the American South and, indeed, any place in the US where poor sexual health is the result of poor sex education.

I’m not claiming that Georgia’s sex ed is poor because it’s my opinion; the CDC agrees with me that Georgia’s sex ed is severely lacking. In 2015, the CDC issued a report decreeing that over 67% of Georgia schools fail to teach all the sex ed topics that the CDC recommends be taught in school. This failure is due to Georgia’s state law, which mandates that sex ed focus on abstinence until marriage and allows local school systems to decide what information to share on contraception and safe sex. About half of those schools use the “Choosing the Best” curriculum, which disseminates information about the risks of contraception without emphasizing the importance of correct and responsible contraception use. Certain counties that use “Choosing the Best” even deliberately bar students from gaining information about contraception, including how to access it or other services like family planning counseling.

I know that correlation does not imply causation, but in the case of this topic, it has been demonstrated that the worse the sex ed in any given location, the worse the sexual health of its young people is likely to be. Teen pregnancies are 50% less likely among people who receive comprehensive sex education as opposed to those who suffered through “Choosing the Best” or similar programs. These programs are actively harmful, leading young people to believe misinformation about the negatives versus the positives of contraception, and they increase risk of teen pregnancy and STI transmission. In short, abstinence-only and abstinence-focused sex ed programs not only don’t work, they are antithetical to sexual health.

Even so-called comprehensive sex ed fails young LGBTQIAP+ people. Sex ed curricula that erase or stigmatize LGBTQIAP+ students can create an unsafe school environment and lead to bullying. Bullying isn’t the only negative effect of heteronormative sex ed, either; here are some more facts about LGBTQIAP+ students who don’t receive inclusive sex ed compared to their cishet peers:

  • More likely to have sex under the influence of illicit substances or alcohol
  • More likely to experience intimate partner violence
  • More likely to contract STIs
  • More likely to have more sexual partners and be sexually active at a younger age
  • Less likely to use barriers or contraception

So how many LGBTQIAP+ students out there are being failed by heteronormative sex ed? Too many. According to the CDC, as of 2015, only 19% of high schools in the US provided any sex ed curricula—ordinary or supplementary—that was LGBTQIAP+ inclusive (and I would lay odds that none of those curricula used as many letters in that acronym as I did). A devastatingly low 5% of health classes included positive representations of topics related to LGBTQIAP+ issues.

The data are clear: sexual education in the United States needs to change. It needs to be consistently comprehensive in regards to contraception and it needs to be LGBTQIAP+ inclusive. To allow sex ed in this country to remain as it is now is to do a serious disservice to the country’s young people.


* I don’t know if the CDC is including trans men in this, so I’m irritated at cissexism for the second time in this entry
** I don’t know if the CDC means “cis women” or “all people with egg-producing reproductive systems” here