Let’s Talk About Sex

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Spring is here and that means the sex education wars are about to flare up once again when Congress decides whether to eliminate–or let expire–about $170M in annual funding for abstinence-only programs. For our current print issue, I took a look at what kinds of sex education programs actually work.

I also found that the fights over what can and cannot be said in public schools about sex obscure a troubling reality: when it comes to taking sex education seriously, most kids are getting left behind. Only one state in the country requires schools to spend any specific amount of time teaching students about sex, one-third don’t require any sex education at all, and the rest leave it up to schools–and sometimes individual teachers–to determine whether “sex ed” means an hour-long assembly kids attend once during their school career or an established curriculum that extends over years and helps them figure out how to develop healthy relationships and make decisions about sex. 

Are public schools even the right place to be teaching kids about sex? Maybe not. But parents aren’t really stepping up–surveys of parents and teens continue to show a significant gap between the percentage of parents who say they’ve talked to their kids about sex and the percentage of kids who report their parents have done so. And most parents’ idea of “talking about sex” is still a one-time, awkward conversation. Nor are many religious institutions walking the walk and getting involved. I ran across one church in my reporting that split because a youth pastor suggested offering a workshop on sexuality for the congregation’s teenagers. Compared to that, a wrestling coach slash health teacher who screens some after-school specials on teen pregnancy is an improvement. But not much.