What Does Sex Education Teach

  • Myths surrounding what sex education is and isn’t abound throughout both the US and abroad. Words that come to mind as people reflect on their own sex education experiences often include “awkward” and “scary.” As a result, teaching in this field requires both the basic knowledge of sexual health and the ability to navigate a multitude of emotions and experiences that can color one’s views of sexuality.

    SIECUS defines sexuality education as “a lifelong process of acquiring information and forming attitudes, beliefs, and values about such important topics as identity, relationships, and intimacy.” Such education should address “the socio-cultural, biological, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of sexuality by providing information; exploring feelings, values, and attitudes; and developing communication, decision-making, and critical-thinking skills.”[1]

    In other words: sex education should be broad and go beyond the birds and bees. Based on this definition, the ideal sex education program should include information on all of the following:

    • Development. This includes anatomy, physiology, puberty, sexuality, and identity.
    • Healthy relationships. Different familial structures, personal and interpersonal skills, communication, boundaries, and sexual negotiation.
    • Sexual health. Pregnancy, STI, and HIV prevention,
    • Sexual behavior. Aligning sexual activity with one’s values.
    • Society and culture. Tech use, personal safety, inclusivity.[2]


    Like other topics under the health education umbrella, sex education’s goal is to create sexually healthy adults. Defining what this means and ensuring one’s lesson plans align with this definition are vital.

    That being said, such ideal sex education is not often taught. Currently, programs can be broken down into one of the following three categories:

    1. Abstinence-Only or Abstinence-Centered Education. Also called “chastity education,” this teaches abstinence as the only morally correct option of sexual expression for unmarried persons.
    2. Abstinence-Plus Education. Strongly focuses on abstinence but also provides information about contraception and condoms.
    3. Comprehensive Sex Education.[3] Teaches abstinence as the safest choice while also providing information about contraception and condoms, building interpersonal and communication skills, and helping students define and explore their own values goals, and options related to sex.


    Advocates for Youth has compiled
    a detailed comparison of abstinence-only versus comprehensive sexuality education.

    How does the US currently stand on these programs? As of November 2014,

    • 22 states and DC mandate sex education
    • 33 states and DC mandate HIV education
    • 19 states must stress the importance of having sex only within marriage.
    • More than 37 states[4] require abstinence be either stressed or covered.
    • More than 15 states require information on condoms or contraception
    • 13 states must cover the negative outcomes of teen sex and pregnancy
    • 26 states and DC skills-building around healthy sexuality and decision-making.


    For more information on the state of sex education in the US today, read
    the Guttmacher Institute’s brief on Sex and HIV Education.

    Though many strides have been made in school-based sex education  and most parents support it[5], there is still a lot of work to be done towards reaching SIECUS’ ideal curriculum.

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    [1]Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. (2004). Guidelines for comprehensive sexuality education.

    [2]Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. (2004). Guidelines for comprehensive sexuality education.

    [3] Some educators have called for a new model titled ‘Comprehensive-Plus Sexuality Education.’

    [4] The precise number depends on whether sex education or HIV education is taught. See the report for specific details.

    [5]Kaiser Family Foundation & Kennedy School of Government. (2004). Sex Education in America: General Public/Parents Survey. Washington, DC: National Public Radio.

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