Chemistry over Contraceptives—How School Sex Ed Fails Students


Chemistry over Contraceptives—How School Sex Ed Fails Students

by Silvio Renna
January 15, 2020
Six girls work on an experiment in a school chemistry lab

When you were in high school, you probably took a lab science course at some point. If yours was anything like mine, the teacher nagged you about safety equipment every time the beakers and Bunsen burners came out. Yet, it would be utterly ridiculous if instead of showing you how to use your gloves and goggles, the teacher told you to steer clear of the lab altogether because staying out is the only 100% effective way to prevent an accident. It’s hard to even imagine that happening, so why is it that in most states, that’s exactly the approach schools take when it comes to sex ed?

Even though we’re now two decades into the twenty-first century and research has proven medically accurate sex education to be one of the keys to reducing STI transmission, teen pregnancy, and unprotected sex, not nearly enough of the states require it. In fact, only 20 states see contraception as an important enough part of sex ed to require teaching it, while 29 states require educators to stress abstinence as the most effective form of birth control.

While I was fortunate enough to grow up in a school district that took sex education seriously, not all my friends had the same luck. Once, after a few friends and I watched an episode of Sex Education (Check out our list of other great conversation-starting shows here), one of my friends mentioned that they’d been taught how to use a spectrophotometer in high school, but the first time they saw anyone put a condom onto anything was in her college freshman dorm room during move-in week. Tragically, she’s far from an outlier.

Across the country, less than a quarter of students are required to learn how to properly use a condom, far less than must learn lab safety practices to graduate. Even worse, millions of teens are being actively taught to abstain from sex without being shown how to have sex safely if they chose to. Only 24 states (less than half!) require that non-abstinence-only sex education be taught, and of those, only 10 require that sex ed be medically accurate.

Compare the 17% of high school students who were taught all of the CDC-recommended sex ed topics to the 70% of graduating high school students who took a chemistry class. Clearly, our education system cares more about teaching kids science procedures most people won’t ever use after graduating than giving us the information we need to have a healthy sex life. If those in power really want to give young people the tools we need to succeed, they need to do more to make sure that teens nationwide are given the medically accurate, inclusive sex education that young people need. They need to prevent stories like my friend’s. It’s time we teach young people how to safely spend time with someone they have chemistry with just as much dedication as we put into teaching them regular chemistry.

To read more about what can be done to improve sex education where you live, check out this post about ensuring inclusivity in sex ed, or this post about teaching consent and sex ed.

Silvio Renna is a student at American University, double-majoring in Politics and Public Health. He’s been passionate about making good health the standard since middle school and is eager to apply what he’s learned in his studies to be a part of making health equitable, affordable, and accessible. Renna interned with the Policy Department at Power to Decide in the Fall of 2019.