The Way We Talk About Sex Education Needs To Change, As Demonstrated By This Teen Pregnancy Map

Are we helping or harming teenagers when we talk about this?

Sex education in the United States has long been a tug-of-war between those who demand limited exposure to sex for hormone-fueled teenagers and those who argue that they should be provided with comprehensive information on the complex topic

As it currently stands, there is no federal curriculum for sex education. The onus falls on state governments to decide if, where, when, how and what to teach students about sex. Even then, many school districts have jurisdiction over the kind of sex education to teach in classes, some with the ability to override state laws. Needless to say, this inconsistency has made it incredibly frustrating for those working to provide better sex education to teens

"Willfully inadequate" is how Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) CEO Chitra Panjabi describes sex education in the U.S.

 "If you look at the Center for Disease Control's School Health Profiles, what that shows is under 50 percent of schools meet the 16-standard criteria the CDC has as part of their sex education measures," Panjabi told A Plus in an interview. 

Sex education programs can vary from stressing abstinence to teaching how to prevent HIV and STDs (or not) to actual, comprehensive sex education that California, for example, recently passed a law on.

Advocates of more thorough sex ed often point to the rate of teenage pregnancy as an example of how the current system is failing young Americans. Many studies point to the teen pregnancy rate as a reason for the need for comprehensive sex education. But even then, the fixation with teen pregnancy as a consequence of the woeful state of sex education is not only misplaced, as Panjabi said, but it also stigmatizes teenage parents. 

The charge that abstinence-stressing sex education is inherently responsible for high rates of teen pregnancy is not how some sexual health organizations like SIECUS intend on tackling the issue. At the heart of the problem, Panjabi said, is that teenagers lack the resources to help them make more informed decisions.

"We really need to reframe discussions around young parents and what that means in terms of what support, information and education we're providing them," said Panjabi. "There're so many more issues beyond whether someone's receiving sex education and receiving abstinence-only sex education."

While abstinence-stressing sex education undoubtedly has an effect on how teenagers view sex, it does not wholly account for high rates of teen pregnancy. Factors like the lack of HIV/STD prevention, gender identity and sexual orientation, as well as broader issues like poverty contribute to that, too.

In an effort to visualize this commonplace critique, we've created a map that shows which state's policies require abstinence-stressing sex education and where they stand in their teen pregnancy rate.

Michael Schall/A Plus
Michael Schall/A Plus

While the top five states with the highest teen pregnancy rate do require abstinence-stressing sex ed, the top 10 do not. At number 7, Nevada, for example, does not have a sweeping requirement that students learn abstinence-stressing sex ed, but different school districts have their own rules, and it does have a statewide opt-in policy that exempts students from sex ed classes unless they have written parental consent. 

It seems the issue is much too complex to be reduced to abstinence-stressing sex education being the only reason for high teen pregnancy rates.

"It's a problem to look at it within that framework. Almost three-quarters of teen pregnancy in the U.S. are among 18- and 19-year-olds," Panjabi said, challenging the shaming of teenage parents in our society. "The focus is, if they choose to become parents, how are we supporting them? As the adults, how can we provide you with better information to make your decisions?"

The habit of shaming of teen parents crosses cultural and political lines. Teenagers are often told of how awful their lives would be if they became parents at such a young age, and this message is disproportionately targeted towards teenage girls.

When Natasha Vianna became a mom at 17, she thought she would lose all her friends — a result, she was told, of getting pregnant at that age. Ironically, her friends were "more supportive than ever," she said in an interview with The Cut. "It was the adults in my life that made things really hard."

Along with five other teen moms across the country, Vianna founded #NoTeenShame, a movement that helps provide support to teenage moms and intends on ending the stigma around teen parenting. "When a healthcare professional, educator, social service provider or policymaker frames teen pregnancy as a negative outcome, a public health issue, a pathogenic condition, or a mistake, remind them that it is their duty to uphold the ethic of treating humans with dignity and respect," the website states. "Remind them that young parents are industrious and valuable members of our society. Remind them that young parents deserve respect, not stigma."

Comprehensive sex education, then, goes beyond whether teens are being taught about the effects of sex (pregnancy and STDs). "As a society, we're so focused on making sure teens don't get pregnant before their 20th birthday that we miss out on conversations about consent, healthy relationships, and agency," Vianna told The Cut.

Panjabi agrees. Comprehensive sex education, she said, is "so much more than just the act of sex. It's about the interactions with other people, it's about consent, healthy behaviors in relationships, communication with others. Sex doesn't exist in a vacuum."

Cover image via Shutterstock.