Why Comprehensive Sex Education Matters So Much Today

Abstinence-only programs don't work.

Sexual consent has come front and center in the conversation about sex today as colleges ramp up efforts to educate students. In this day and age, with increased reports of sexual violence — particularly on college campuses — the importance of sex education is more evident than ever. 

In a time when easy access to online pornography has become a source of sex ed for many a growing teenager, comprehensive sex education in school should be a no-brainer. Teenage pregnancy is booming, as are sexually transmitted infections. 

Today, only 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schoolchildren to be taught sex education in general, which includes abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Of these 22 states, only 13 require it to be medically accurate. California is currently the only state in the country with mandated comprehensive sex education. A few other states have comprehensive sex education, though it is not required — if sex education is provided, it must be comprehensive.

But abstinence-only sex education is alive and well; Congress even increased funding for such programs to $75 million a year.

Resistance has come from within, too. Just recently George Lawlor, a university student in the UK, laid out his argument for refusing an invitation to a consent class that he labeled "loathsome." He wrote:

I don't have to be taught to not be a rapist. That much comes naturally to me, as I am sure it does to the overwhelming majority of people you and I know. Brand me a bigot, a misogynist, a rape apologist, I don't care. I stand by that.

But comprehensive sex education, whether at kindergarten, public schools or college campuses, is crucial. Here's why:

Sex education is education.

According to Avert, an international HIV and AIDS charity, it's about informing people so that they can shape their attitudes on sex, sexual identity, relationships and intimacy. Being educated about sex also arms those with newly found hormonal urges (i.e., teens) to make informed choices about their behavior and the confidence to act on them.

Sex education is a means to help people protect themselves against abuse, exploitation, unwanted pregnancies and STDs. 

Abstinence-only does not work.

A panel of public health experts testified to Congress in 2008 that there was nothing of basis to support the massive federal funding of abstinence-only programs. "Abstinence-only programs are not only ineffective, but may cause harm by providing inadequate and inaccurate information, and resulting in participants' failure to use safer sex practices once intercourse is initiated," Margaret Blythe of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told Congress.

In fact, some studies show that abstinence has an opposite effect. Columbia University researchers found that those who took virginity pledges increased their risk for STIs and pregnancy. They were also less likely to go for STI testing and when they did have sex, were less likely to use contraception.

Public health experts support comprehensive sex ed.

Advocates for Youth listed the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association among the many organizations that support comprehensive sex education — which includes teaching abstinence and contraception and condom use. 

The Internet.

Online pornography is so prevalent today that it rendered even Playboy's claim to fame obsolete. A study from 2013 showed disturbing results: one-third of students aged 11 to 18 believed that online porn dictated how people behave in a relationship.

The study also found that young people are three times likelier to find out about sex and relationships through the Internet than their parents. And though the Internet can be an infinite source of information, a lot of it is highly misleading.

Campus sexual assault is rampant.

Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz made national headlines in 2014 for carrying her mattress around campus in an act of performance protest — it was one of the many high-profile incidents that ignited a national debate about sexual assault on college campuses. 

A new survey showed that 23 percent of female college students report sexual assault, from kissing, to touching, to rape. 

Though some scoff at consent classes, they are part of a concerted effort to educate students about sex as it happens in an experimental environment. Teaching consent to students toes an unmastered gray zone that educators are trying to navigate. And as the spotlight on sexual assault continues to burn bright, consent remains a crucial part of sex education for teenagers and young adults today. 

Cover image via iStock / Jacob Ammentorp Lund

* This story was corrected to reflect accurate information about comprehensive sex education.