The landscape of sex ed in the United States is confusing. What students are taught, and in what grades, varies widely from one school district to another. In many communities, how to talk with kids and teens about sex is hotly debated. Educators, parents, outside groups and state regulations all play a role in shaping sex ed curriculums.
Here’s what you need to know to understand the different kinds of sex ed programs and what’s taught in your district.
What are the different types of sex education?
There are four broad categories of sex ed: abstinence only, abstinence plus, sexual risk avoidance and comprehensive sex education. The first three typically promote postponing sexual activity until after marriage to avoid risks including pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, while comprehensive sex education focuses on equipping students with skills for staying safe when they do choose to have sex.
That said, there is no single, agreed-upon definition for any of these terms. Designers of sex ed curriculums are responsible for labeling their own programs, and the distinctions between them can be blurry. For example, comprehensive sex education programs often present abstinence as the surest way to eliminate risks, while programs in any of the categories may include information on contraception, STIs and healthy relationships.
What are some of the main points of contention between different types of sex education?
The main differences between the various types of sex education are in the degree of emphasis on abstinence and the ways in which teen sex and premarital sex are discussed. But there are other differences as well. For example, comprehensive sex education often includes lessons on gender identity, while other forms of sex ed typically leave that information out.
Comprehensive sex education also often includes lessons on consent. While some sexual risk avoidance and abstinence plus programs also discuss this topic, many focus on so-called refusal skills. The concepts are related — both involve teaching students that they can say no to sex. But instruction on consent often includes teaching that people can agree to have sex, whereas proponents of refusal skills say that approach ends up telling teens how to “negotiate” for sex.
What grade is sex ed taught in schools and by whom?
This varies widely. Comprehensive sex education advocates argue that courses should start as early as kindergarten, with lessons on topics like personal boundaries and names for body parts. They also say that sex ed should be taught every year; a few states, like California and Oregon, require this. In many places, however, sex ed is only taught in a few grade levels and not until middle and high school. In some districts, it’s not taught at all.
In schools that do teach it, sex ed typically takes up a small portion of a student’s overall time in school and, when taught by school staff, is often incorporated into health, physical education or science classes. Outside providers of sex education curriculums are also common, including Planned Parenthood, crisis pregnancy centers and online programs.
What types of sex education are most effective?
People on all sides of this question — from proponents of comprehensive sex education to sexual risk avoidance advocates to abstinence-only supporters — say that their approach works best and often point to research. All major medical organizations recommend comprehensive sex education. But it’s difficult to conduct quality research determining which programs succeed at reducing rates of teen sex or high-risk sexual behavior. You can find more on what we do and don’t know about sex ed effectiveness here.
How do I figure out what my kid is learning in sex ed and who is teaching it?
The first step is to ask your school or district what sex ed curriculum they are using, who developed it and who will be teaching it. In some places, including Texas, districts are required to show any parent who asks a copy of the curriculum. Outside providers also often have information for parents available on their websites, and some conduct presentations for parents in advance of teaching students.
Most states allow parents to opt their children out of sex ed, while some, including Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Texas, require parents to opt in. If you live in one of those states and you want your child to participate in sex ed classes, be aware that you’ll have to give permission in order for them to do so.