Growing up in a conservative, Christian “abstinence-only” household where I had little opportunity to explore my sexuality, I couldn’t access resources about safe sex and consent; I was expected to simply not engage in any type of sexual activity until I was married. That’s why when I started college, I wish I would have had more access to comprehensive sex education than the very little that was available.
When the University of Minnesota recently adopted a new minor in sex education for public health graduate students, both at the master’s and doctoral levels, I saw the value immediately. According to Minnesota Daily, the idea for the minor came from a class called “Sex, Sexuality and Sexual Health” taught by Simon Rosser, a professor of epidemiology and community health. The program will cover a range of topics, including but not limited to HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and LGBTQ studies.
Learning about the breakdown of this new course made it apparent to me that more schools should be following suit. During my time in college, I wish I had fully pursued the resources that were already available to me about comprehensive sex education beyond just the free condoms. Making it optional to explore the resources was one I had trouble voluntarily taking up because an abstinence-only education isn’t as easily left behind in the classroom. I think that if the class or resources had been required, there would have been a greater likelihood I would have known more walking into college.
Teen Vogue reports that the average age people lose their virginity is 19, with a larger percentage of male virgins than female virgins existing within those statistics. I fell within that average — ultimately not losing my virginity until I was in college and with little knowledge of what I was doing in general.
I know I’m not alone, either. Not every high school student has access to adequate information about sexual and reproductive health through their school district. The Guttmacher Institute explains only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate some sort of sex education in public schools, while 37 states are required to provide information about abstinence.
I attended a public school in New Jersey, which was required to teach sex education, but the lack of information I walked into my sex life with speaks volumes about the ineffectiveness of the curriculum. Although these programs are mandated by the federal government, they can still be inadequate. Plus, the heteronormative narrative around my school’s curriculum erased queer and transgender identities and how they experience sex.
Sex education isn’t just a social issue, but one of public health. Young adults need access to knowledge about their bodies. Otherwise, young people are at risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 collectively make up 10 million diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections every year. Specifically, 1 in every 4 HIV infections occurs among youth between the ages of 13 and 24 years.
Sex education plays a crucial role in STI prevention, but an honest (and educational) portrayal of each is very rarely found in sex ed curricula. More often than not, the curricula thrive on fearmongering. In my personal experience, it didn’t occur to me that I had to be tested only once every six months. While in college, I got tested every time I had a new sexual partner, even though I wasn’t showing any symptoms of an STI. However, the fear of contracting one motivated me to schedule a Planned Parenthood appointment every time I hooked up with someone new, which isn’t a great strategy for anyone trying to save money.
Rates of STIs are just the tip of the iceberg with the correlation between adequate sex education and a healthy sex life. According to the Guttmacher Institute, declining rates of teenage pregnancy in the United States correlate with sex education as well as adequate access to affordable reproductive health care — not with abstinence-only curriculums. Evidence suggests sex-ed programs “have been shown to delay sexual debut, reduce frequency of sex and number of partners, increase condom or contraceptive use, or reduce sexual risk-taking,” while abstinence-only curricula have consistently failed to prevent young adults from engaging in sexual activity.
Sexual assaults on college and university campuses are at an all-time high. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network reports 11 percent of all undergraduate students experience rape or sexual assault through excessive force, violence or incapacitation. Fortunately, sex education can help prevent sexual violence by providing information about practicing good consent. Perhaps if consent were more widely taught, I wouldn’t be a survivor of sexual violence today.
Although there are laws mandating public schools teach sex ed, there are none that apply to higher-education institutions. Although many academic institutions offer gender and sexuality courses, they are not required to be taken by the entire student body at some point in their undergraduate careers. Quality comprehensive sex education can change lives. It could’ve changed mine.
Originally published on HelloFlo.