Student Well-Being

Fact-Checking John Oliver on Sex Education (Spoiler: He Was Accurate)

By Evie Blad — August 11, 2015 5 min read
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When I saw that a segment on sex education from HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver was spreading quickly online, I was eager to give it the old fact check.

As a colleague pointed out, folks in education circles are often just excited to see education acknowledged at all in popular culture, leading us to avoid scrutinizing such content with the same critical eye we use to dice up research reports and news articles. Growing up in rural Kansas, I had the same reaction every time the Sunflower State was mentioned in movies, even if it was portrayed in a negative light (which it usually was). I figured people were doing the same with Oliver’s piece.

So what did I find? Actually, Oliver’s facts about sex education were largely correct. As for the conclusions Oliver drew from those facts, I will let you judge those for yourself. You can watch Oliver’s segment below. Warning: This is content from a late-night cable show, so the humor is a little crude at times.

Here’s a closer look at a few of Oliver’s assertions.

There is little consistency on sex education approaches between states and districts.

For many reasons, U.S. schools operate under a patchwork system of vague and varying policies about what, how, and even if they teach their students about sex.

The National Conference of State Legislatures backs up two facts Oliver stated in his report: just 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools teach sex education (20 of which mandate sex education and HIV education), and “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.’ ”

Even in states that don’t require sex education classes, districts can opt to teach them. But in some states, few do. A 2014 report on Mississippi by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States included survey data showing that 43% of middle schools and 24% of high schools in the state reported that if the state had not passed a 2011 law requiring sex education, they would not be teaching sex education classes.

While different cultural climates may lead to wide variations in sex education, state control and flexibility at the district level means there are inconsistent approaches to many facets of education, including how much recess schools offer, how students are disciplined, and what teachers teach in science classes.

Some states place sharp limits on what can be taught in sex education classes.

This is also true, as I noted in this April 2014 blog post. In Mississippi, for example, the same comprehensive sex education advocates who applauded the state’s new mandate criticized another provision in the law that bans teachers from demonstrating how to apply condoms.

That prohibition led Sanford Johnson, the deputy director of advocacy at education advocacy group Mississippi First, to create this YouTube video in which he carefully explains how to put on a sock. Oliver must be a Rules for Engagement reader (who isn’t?!), because he included Sanford’s video in his segment.

In addition, some states, including Alabama, have sex education policies that require educators to teach exclusively about heterosexual sex or to advise against even consensual gay sex. Many of those policies are grounded in now-invalidated state “sodomy” laws prohibiting anal sex. Though the U.S. Supreme Court struck down those laws, many of them remain on the books. They aren’t typically enforced in criminal cases, but they are often mentioned in state sex education policies.

Guest speakers on sex and abstinence include some controversial object lessons in their presentations.

I’ve heard of lessons that involve comparing a teen who’s had multiple sex partners to a can of Coke filled with backwash. Oliver mentioned comparisons to a piece of chewed up gum, an image criticized by kidnapping and sexual assault victim Elizabeth Smart. He also mentioned the lesson demonstrated in this video, in which the speaker uses a strip of packing tape to represent a woman, who loses a bit of her “bonding power” every time she is adhered and pulled off of another teen boy’s arm. I talked to the creator of that lesson for this blog post about how schools promote abstinence.

“Our intent is to showcase the issue of bonding,” Joneen Mackenzie, the creator of the approach told me at the time. The object lesson is followed by a discussion of the effects of sex on the brain, with talk of neurotransmitters and the release of hormones that promote intimacy, she said.

Some advocates for comprehensive sex education argue classes should include discussions about consent.

This is also true, especially as concern over sexual assault on college campuses continues to grab headlines.

But it’s not surprising that many districts that focus largely on abstinence wouldn’t address this issue.

And it’s also not surprising that some teachers would feel ill-equipped to address the ethical, legal, and relational issues involved in discussing consent with their students. That’s because of something Oliver didn’t mention: Many teachers of sex education courses weren’t required to take courses on human sexuality in college, leaving them unprepared to address some student concerns, ill-informed about sex-related issues, or uncomfortable with the content, advocates say.

Many policymakers argue that teaching kids about sex is a parent’s job.

And many of them see our current multitude of approaches to sex education as a sign that local control is working and responding to the varied concerns and priorities of states and districts.

But critics contend that schools should teach some basic information about sex and sexuality out of recognition that many students have sex without a thorough heart-to-heart with their parents. About 8 in 10 (83%) teens did not receive sex education before they first had sex, according to a 2014 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As I wrote at the time: “Earlier sex education could help further reduce the teen birth rate, the report says, along with the use of evidence-based educational materials, access to and knowledge about contraceptives, and encouragement from adults to delay sexual activity.”

What do you think? Did Oliver draw the right conclusions? Should Nick Offerman teach U.S. students about consent?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.