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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Should Sex Education Be Taught in Schools?

By Peter DeWitt — June 04, 2015 3 min read
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Thinking about sex education conjures up all of those uncomfortable moments as an adolescent when we had to sit at our desks and listen to our health teachers talk about things that we joked about with friends but never wanted to have a conversation about with adults. But things have changed a lot since then.

There has been an increase in the number of LGBT students who have come out while in high school, or sometimes, even middle school. We are surrounded images that inspire conversations about sex education and other images created by fashion that offer so much skin that there is nothing left to the imagination.

AVERT defines Sex Education as

the process of acquiring information and forming attitudes and beliefs about sex, sexual identity, relationships and intimacy. Sex education is also about developing young people's skills so that they make informed choices about their behaviour, and feel confident and competent about acting on these choices."

First and foremost, there is a debate between the use of sexual education programs, where they openly teach about sex and prevention, and abstinence-only programs, which Advocates for Youth say,


  1. “has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
  2. teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school-age children;
  3. teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
  4. teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity;
  5. teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical side effects;
  6. teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;
  7. teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances, and
  8. teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.”

Advocates for Youth also believe,

Accurate, balanced sex education - including information about contraception and condoms - is a basic human right of youth. Such education helps young people to reduce their risk of potentially negative outcomes, such as unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Such education can also help youth to enhance the quality of their relationships and to develop decision-making skills that will prove invaluable over life. This basic human right is also a core public health principle that receives strong endorsement from mainstream medical associations, public health and educational organizations, and - most important - parents."

But is it the job of teachers in schools to educate students about sex or is it the job of the parents? According to the National Conference of State Legislatures,

All states are somehow involved in sex education for public schoolchildren. As of Jan. 1, 2015: 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools teach sex education (20 of which mandate sex education and HIV education). 33 states and the District of Columbia require students receive instruction about HIV/AIDS. 19 states require that if provided, sex education must be medically, factually or technically accurate. State definitions of "medically accurate" vary, from requiring that the department of health review curriculum for accuracy, to mandating that curriculum be based on information from "published authorities upon which medical professionals rely." Many states define parents' rights concerning sexual education: 37 states and the District of Columbia require school districts to allow parental involvement in sexual education programs. Three states require parental consent before a child can receive instruction. 35 states and the District of Columbia allow parents to opt-out on behalf of their children.

Of course, if it’s taught in schools, how properly are the students being educated? This debate between whether it’s the school’s job or a parent’s job will last for a very long time, and quite frankly it is an area that many parents and teachers may agree. There are parents who do not want their children to be taught sex education in schools, just as there are some teachers who don’t think it is their job to teach it.

On the other side are parents and teachers who agree it should be taught in schools and at home because it is a topic that we all cannot escape. And I’m sure there are a bunch of people in the middle who do not even want to discuss the topic at all and just hope for the best.

NPR

The NPR story, called Beyond The Birds And The Bees: Surviving Sex Ed Today (which can be heard here) inspired me to think about all of the places that the topic of sex comes up in conversation. Sometimes it’s through jokes on television or social media, other times it’s in stories on the news, and most times it’s the center of the conversation on the back of a school bus. Whether it makes us uncomfortable or not, we can’t seem to escape the topic.

In the NPR story, Lena Solow, a teacher of ten years,

Covers the topics you'd expect: how to prevent STDs, pregnancy. But Solow talks about way more than going all the way. "One of my biggest goals as a sex educator is to be sex-positive," she explains, "to talk about pleasure and to talk about sex not just as something that just makes babies."

Listening to the story made me blush a little as I drove alone in my car through Massachusetts, and made me laugh a bit when Solow said that when she was a student her sex education class was taught by the physical education teacher and revolved around spelling tests.

Yes, spelling tests. She said,

I definitely had spelling tests as a big part of my sex-ed when I was in middle school: 'Spell gonorrhea. Spell gonococcus. Now you pass or don't pass health.' Literally, that was what was prioritized."

She wants her students to have a much more knowledgeable experience, and she also explores topics that are unfortunately still controversial in today’s schools, which is the topic of LGBT students. In the NPR story, Garsd writes,

Beyond the basics, Solow is delving into topics that many teachers would skirt. Things like tolerance. Solow recently asked her students if they thought LGBT people would feel comfortable at the school. A lot of the kids say they didn't think so."

It’s definitely a complicated debate, which will last for a very long time. What are your thoughts?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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