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Privacy, Porn, and Parents in the Room: Sex Education’s Pandemic Challenges

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 12, 2021 7 min read
Conceptual image of students feeling isolated, but also trying to connect.
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Sex education involves delicate discussions at the best of times, but the last year has brought unprecedented challenges for students and teachers alike.

The pandemic has highlighted greater needs for social and emotional supports and media literacy in sex education for a new generation growing up online and physically distanced. Yet the realizations come as time devoted to health topics has been squeezed by the need to cover core math and reading topics.

For sex education to succeed, “these young people have to have the ability to be centered in their education and have robust conversations in a really safe space to really learn from those experiences,” said Brittany McBride, the associate director of sex education at the nonprofit Advocates for Youth. “And we lost that with the virtual learning.”

The National Sex Education Standards were revised in March 2020 to include grade 10 (The original covered only grades 2, 5, 8, and 12), and add new focus on trauma-informed instruction, and topics covering consent, relationship violence, and gender identity. But students learning in the coronavirus era might not be getting the benefit of updated lessons, educators said.

“I don’t think schools have done a particularly great job during the pandemic with sex education,” said Eva Goldfarb, a Montclair State University professor in public health and sex education, who co-wrote the standards. “Since sex education has never been a top priority for most school districts, when schools moved online sex ed. was likely cut back or eliminated in favor of what was considered to be more essential core subject areas.”

“And to do sex education well, you need to be able to create an environment of trust,” she continued. “You need to be able to create an environment where people feel safe to ask these really burning important questions and to share their thoughts with one another. And that’s hard to recreate online.”

In a nationally representative survey this September by the EdWeek Research Center, 61 percent of students told Education Week that they’ve had at least one course or unit of sex education, but a far smaller share—a little more than 1 in 3—said their school had covered all of the topics they felt they needed to learn. Nearly a third wished for information about domestic and dating violence, and a quarter wanted teachers to cover more about healthy relationships, gender identity, and sexual abuse issues.

Students go online for help

Deborah Levine, the director of the LGBT YouthLink, which provides online support and education groups for students, said that attendance at the group’s online sessions doubled, and tripled for its 90-minute online chat sessions, during the pandemic. The surge in interest caused them to move from 10 to 12 chats weekly.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in youth, but ... even before the pandemic, we know LGBT youth weren’t always getting what they needed in schools,” Levine said, adding that LGBT students are more likely than heteronormative students to seek out sex education resources online.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia require instruction on sexuality (though nine restrict that coverage to issues around HIV/AIDS). However, only 18 require medically accurate information. Few have laws like California’s Healthy Youth Act, which requires comprehensive instruction across multiple grades.

“The origins of sex ed. in this country are concern over teen pregnancy, STDs, and HIV. That’s why we’re stuck in a lot of places in this biology-based model,” said Nicole Cushman, an expert on sex education pedagogy and an associate in the department of population and family health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “There is growing awareness that needs to be situated in young peoples’ lives. Students aren’t making those decisions [on physical relationships] just on biological reasons.”

More than 18 months of pandemic-related health concerns, physical distancing, and social isolation have also hurt many adolescents’ social development. In a nationally representative survey this August and September by the EdWeek Research Center, 37 percent of secondary students said they have become less comfortable with physical contact like hugs from their peers since the pandemic, and 43 percent or more said their feelings of loneliness and social anxiety have increased.

EdWeek Research Center survey of students: Compared to before the pandemic, how have the following things changed for you?

“We’re talking so much more about students’ social-emotional skills now,” said Cheryl Nelson, a San Francisco Unified School District teacher on special assignment for health education. Besides basic discussions around puberty, she said, classes include goal-setting around stress monitoring, such as deep breathing exercises.

“We’re always stressing that sex ed. is not about the mechanics of sex; it’s about relationships and boundaries, understanding what you are ready for,” Nelson said. Because parents often heard pieces of their children’s lessons during video calls, the virtual format has in many schools created opportunities for parents and students “to talk more in depth about some of the topics we were discussing such as consent and boundary setting and healthy communication.”

EdWeek Research Center survey of principals and district leaders: What topics are typically covered in your district’s sex education? (Select all that apply)
EdWeek Reasearch Center survey of students: What topics have NOT been covered in your school’s sex education program that you would like to learn about? (Select all that apply)

“We know more and more of our social interactions are happening in digital and virtual spaces, so how do we teach students to navigate those?” said Brittany Batell, the program director for the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health, which worked with districts to develop statewide guidelines and tools for virtual sex education. “In the past, we’d talk about face-to-face interactions or phone calls, right? And now we have to consider what healthy communication styles look like via text and via Instagram and TikTok. When we talk about putting together consent and boundaries, we have to think about things like sharing passwords and having access to people’s accounts. We’re incorporating more and more as best practice to think about expanding principles of healthy interpersonal relationships, where two people aren’t in the same physical space.”

Yet more online instruction has also meant less privacy for students and teachers, who may have parents or younger siblings sitting nearby during discussions about sex.

“Everyone’s afraid of being Zoom-bombed, afraid of what younger siblings might be there, and that others are hearing instruction that was supposed to be just for students at a certain grade. So, I think that [challenges to virtual instruction] are across the board, but it’s also more intense around sex education,” Laurie Bechhofer, a sexuality education consultant for the Michigan Department of Education, said.

Nelson and fellow San Francisco sex education special assignment teacher Rosalia Lopez said the district provides headphones for virtual students who need to attend classes with others in the room, and that teachers provide more information in advance for parents on topics covered.

Media literacy is a key to counter pornography

With increased screen time and less adult supervision, experts also warn that secondary and even elementary students are encountering more inappropriate information and conversations around sex. National estimates find that among teenagers, more than 4 in 5 boys and 3 in 5 girls have seen at least some pornography online. On average, they were exposed for the first time before age 14—with that exposure rising during the pandemic.

“We need to be talking to them about porn,” Cushman said. “This is a concern for a lot of folks about young people finding out about sex through porn; it doesn’t depict what most people’s bodies look like, doesn’t depict what sex is really like. It would behoove parents and educators to make sure they understand what’s realistic.”

At the same time, there are also more substantive educational tools for parents and teachers online, from animated videos to guide parent discussions for elementary students on Amaze.org, or sex educators like Lindsay Doe taking to YouTube for specific topics like virginity and relationship issues for students with autism.

A January analysis of 30 years of research on sex education found a comprehensive, multigrade approach to the subject can reduce rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, improve students’ social-emotional learning and media literacy, and reduce child sex abuse and domestic violence in dating.

Nelson, the San Francisco educator, said the district’s curriculum now includes both discussions of pornography, and interactions online and on social media. “Everyone—teachers, students, everyone—was reporting increased screen time during lockdown ... just zoning out looking at that kind of stuff,” she said. “So we had conversations around, even with your increased critical thinking around these things, how does it make you feel, and what are some strategies for maybe stepping away from it?”

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

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Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from The Allstate Foundation, at AllstateFoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as Privacy, Porn, Parents in the Room: COVID-Era Sex Education

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