When we talk about sex education reform, the discussion is often a two-sided debate between teaching adolescents about sex or teaching them to wait until marriage. As of January 2015, only 19 states have a policy that requires their sex education programs to be “medically accurate,” the definition of which varies from state to state. Proponents for comprehensive sex education place efforts on eliminating abstinence-only programs from school curriculums, which still receive federal funding to be taught in public schools across the United States.
The problem, however, is greater than the fact that kids and teenagers are being taught that the only way to be safe and “good” is to say no to sex until marriage. The issue also lies in the way the alternative to abstinence—having safer sex—is presented. Safer sex is usually defined as intercourse in which precautions are being taken to prevent STIs or unwanted pregnancy. Intercourse is one of many ways to have sex, and using contraceptives and STI protection are elements of safer sex. However, this definition misses huge components of what would be part of a truly comprehensive sex education.
PBS recently published a report on the Netherlands’ sexuality education program. By law, all primary school students are required to receive some sort of sexuality education. While the thought of a four-year-old learning about sex may be horrifying to many Americans, one of the most important parts of the Dutch system is that it is a sexuality education program. Kindergarteners are learning about boundaries in intimacy (such as how to say when you do or do not want a hug from someone), family structures, and body awareness. Older children are learning about safer sex practices and reproduction, but also within a larger conversation about relationships, gender roles, and identity. Even programs in the United States that strive for a comprehensive sex education fail to make LGBTQ-inclusive lesson plans that address different types of relationships and gender identities. The Dutch curriculum is not one large debate of whether the students should be having sex, or how they should be having sex; it’s an exploration of all the intricate factors that compose sexuality.
Research has shown that compared to the rest of the world, the Netherlands has low rates of teen pregnancy and STI transmission, demonstrating a successful and comprehensive sex education system. Additionally, a study published by the Jacobs Institute for Women’s Health showed that most adolescents in the Netherlands say that their first sexual experience was “wanted and fun.” Not only are U.S. rates of STI transmission and unwanted pregnancy higher, but U.S. teens also report feelings of regret after having sex for the first time. The disparity is not only about which teenagers are being taught to use safer sex supplies, but also which teens have the opportunity to have open conversations about relationships and intimacy as part of a coming-of-age education.
The morality trope that gets placed on adolescent sexuality prevents this dialogue from taking place. This spring, a teacher in Minneapolis took her class to Smitten Kitten, a local sexuality education center and shop. The teacher, Starri Hedges, told reporters that she wanted to bring her class to a place where they could ask questions openly “without shame, without any fear.” During the trip, students spoke with a sex educator in the store’s library section. When parent Lynn Floyd heard that his two daughters were on the trip, he immediately pulled them out of school. “You just can’t erase those images,” Floyd said.
According to reports, it seems that parents were not properly notified about the trip ahead of time. Regardless, the cause for parental outrage seems to be more than an unsigned permission slip, as Floyd has threatened to file a lawsuit against the school. The fiasco exemplifies the pervasive sex-negative attitude in America, wherein a strong distrust of sexuality causes an urge to shield children from it at all costs.
During the Smitten Kitten field trip, pornographic items were off-limits. This may seem like an obvious boundary to some, but leading Danish sexologist Christian Graugaard is calling for pornography to be included in sex education curriculums. He proposes for 8th and 9th graders to critique pornography in the classroom. Graugaard argues that research has shown that a large majority of teens have seen pornographic images already. Instead of telling them to stop looking, he maintains that sex education should be teaching them to be “conscientious and critical consumers.”
There is a stark belief in mainstream American culture that when adolescents receive honest information about sex, someone should be telling them that the subject matter does not apply to them. Sex education models from Europe are showing a progressive approach in which childhood sexuality is acknowledged and explored without shame. The conversation is being expanded to more than the question of an act, but rather a larger social discourse of how sexuality affects more aspects of life than just what happens in a bedroom.
Children, despite their age, are still human. Humans have the right to accurate information about themselves, their bodies, and their relationships with other selves and bodies. Ignoring children’s humanity and sexuality will not stop or prevent either from existing.