The perennially touchy issue of sex education has erupted again—this time in states not known for being especially prudish about the topic.
Both Illinois and New Jersey rolled out changes to health and sex education standards this school year. And in both states, the revisions have sparked complaints—often specifically about what the standards say about LGBTQ issues and on sexual identity.
Here are some answers to common questions about the latest flare-ups.
Hasn’t sex ed. always been controversial?
For sure. It’s frequently the subject of intense local debates, in part because sexuality education is probably the most local of all curriculum topics in schools: Sex education is not mandatory in all of the states, which means it’s often up to school districts to decide whether—and how—to offer it.
Many states do set some parameters for sex ed., usually in legislation, but these guidelines are still pretty sketchy—often framed in terms of what educators can’t mention (abortion, same-sex relationships) than what they should mention. And it’s still left up to school districts to craft teaching materials or to hire outside organizations to provide curriculum and training.
There are no national sex education mandates, but historically, federal funding for health education has shaped what’s covered in the classes. Abstinence continues to be a core theme of this programming.
One common thread in the evolution of sex education has been risk avoidance and prevention, which have driven the emphasis of specific topics over the years: sexually transmitted infections in the 1970s, teen pregnancy in the 1970s and 1980s, and HIV/AIDS beginning in the 1980s.
Now, health researchers and practitioners have tried to shift away from trying to frighten kids away from behavior that carries any risk. Instead they favor an approach that emphasizes informed decisionmaking, risk management, and self-advocacy.
“Because when kids feel confident in their skills, they’ll act in more healthy ways,” said Judy LoBianco, the supervisor of health and physical education for the Livingston public schools in New Jersey.
What’s ‘comprehensive sex education’ anyway?
This is basically the term of art for a more holistic approach towards sex education that goes beyond abstinence or risk prevention. It includes topics like gender roles and identity, consent, healthy relationships, and sexual diversity presented in the context of social and emotional skills.
This is the approach taken by the groups that have crafted the National Sex Education Standards, last updated in 2020. Despite their name, these are not mandated. States use them to inform their own guidelines. (Illinois adopted these guidelines, but allows districts to opt out of using them, and many have.)
Counter to popular claims, the guidelines do not introduce specific sexual practices in early grades. In 2nd grade, for instance, the national standards require that students can list medically accurate names for the body parts, including genitals, and that students can define “bodily autonomy” and personal boundaries.
How are national politics affecting the sex-ed. discussion?
Despite polling that generally shows that adults favor the tenets of comprehensive sex education, many of the new complaints about sex education echo national political discourse that casts schools as the sites of indoctrination about gender identity.
In New Jersey, whose new standards draw on but aren’t identical to the National Sex Education Standards, opponents have claimed that they show young children “sexually explicit” material and are “indoctrinating” kids into “woke ideology.”
Some of these complaints cite purported materials and lesson plans in use, claiming they are required by the state. But the state does not pick what curriculum, lesson plans, or training teachers receive; districts select those.
In general, sex-ed. advocates say, these complaints are linked to wider moves to censor what happens in classrooms. About 17 states have restricted lessons about race and gender—and some of them, like a Florida law that forbids talk about sex or sexuality in grades K-3, have led to the accusations that teachers are “grooming” students. Sociologists and health experts say conflating grooming—in which an adult inappropriately develops a close relationship with a child to facilitate abuse—with sex education puts both teachers and students at risk.
Is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the ‘Dobbs’ case affecting sex ed.?
Surprisingly, abortion is not a common theme in most states’ sex-ed. guidelines. Only nine states and the District of Columbia direct whether or how to discuss abortion in sex education, according to a 2022 policy review from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS, a nonprofit.
Six of those states prohibit discussing abortion, while Vermont, Colorado, and the District of Columbia affirm abortion as an option.
More states—about 15—include abortion in the context of social studies classes, where it’s often taught in lessons about interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, the 14th Amendment, and the expansion of civil liberties.