A Call for Reformation of Sex Education


A Call for Reformation of Sex Education

by Nasu Conteh
May 12, 2021
A teacher stands at the front of a classroom and engages her students in a discussion.

Students nation-wide leave high school with little to no knowledge of their reproductive health systems, which ultimately affects the overall reproductive health and well-being of our country. The reformation of the sexual and reproductive health education system in this country is needed to overturn the lack of knowledge and lack of autonomy that young people have over their bodies.

I am a 23-year-old woman that went to a public high school in what is described as a suburban-rural town in western Maryland. Although my mother did her part as a parent and signed me up for all the sex ed courses available at my school, I am still learning and unlearning so many things about my reproductive health that I should have known. In many schools just like the ones I attended, students sit through classes that are meant to teach them about their bodies and the bodies of their peers. But instead of leaving with knowledge and understanding to build from, they leave feeling ashamed or embarrassed by what they have learned and ignorant of what they have not learned. I left my public high school in the middle of western Maryland with little to no knowledge about how my body would continue to change after puberty or how to listen to my body and understand my reproductive health and how to plan my reproductive future.

The sexual education system in America is totally left up to the states-- meaning there are no federal laws that make it mandatory for all sections of reproductive health curriculum to be taught. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education. While this is a step in the right direction, in 22 states, some students are not given the opportunity to better understand their reproductive systems. Only 16 states require teachers discuss condoms or contraception when sex education or HIV/STI instruction is provided. Again, while this is a step in the right direction, students that are not being taught how to protect themselves from STIs will leave school at a loss due to the lack of information. Sexual education should be mandatory for each student in the United States regardless of the state they live in because it is crucial for students to understand how to treat their bodies and the bodies of the people around them.

Sexual health education should include, but NOT be limited to, the following things:

Bodily Autonomy

When learning about bodily autonomy, students will gain the skills to protect and advocate for themselves against people and practices that do not benefit them as a person, sexually, physically, and emotionally.

Inclusive Reproductive Organ Understanding

Learning about reproductive organs and reproductive systems teaches students about their anatomy and the anatomy of other sexes and genders. It also provides an opportunity for young people to ask questions and in turn gain an understanding that will help them in the future when, for example, something does not seem normal within their own bodies.

Safe Sex Practices for ALL Types of Sex

Safe sex practices for all types of sexual activity gives young people the knowledge of how to have vaginal, oral, anal, and other forms of non-penetrative, but consensual, sex in a safe way.

Contraceptive Education that is NOT Limited to Abstinence

Contraception education is very important in terms of both preventing pregnancy and planning a reproductive future, and with comprehensive contraception education, every student can learn and understand what kind of birth control is available and what may be right for them, their partner, and their reproductive future.

Consent and the Etiquette Around Having a Shared Sexual Experience 

While this topic can often go hand-in-hand with bodily autonomy, focusing on consent on its own is important as students need to understand that consent is not an option, but is mandatory when it comes to shared sexual experiences. When students learn that they can withhold consent or withdraw consent at any time, even if they’ve said yes previously, it supports the ideas of ownership and bodily autonomy. It is also important to teach all students that consent is always necessary in a shared sexual experience.

While these topics are broad, each are important for students to understand and use as tools to navigate the world of sex and reproductive health. 

As a 23-year-old woman who had to learn and relearn how her body works and how it should be treated, I know I would have benefited from a reformed sexual health system that included these fives elements. While I understand that the states have all the power in deciding what is taught in schools, the benefit of an all-encompassing sexual health reformation would show in the self-esteem of students learning about their bodies, as well in the overall reproductive well-being of the country. We all have the power to advocate for the students in our states and tell our state and local representatives that we want #SexEdForAll.

Nasu Conteh is a graduate student of Maternal and Child Health at the Milken Institute of Public Health, George Washington University. She is interested in Reproductive Justice and hopes to work in Public Health and Health Policy after graduating.