It’s time to have a talk. No, the talk. You know, the one about sexual health.
Talking to kids about sexual health is one of the most important discussions for educators to have. This is more than just a talk about sex--it’s about health, wellbeing, relationships, cultural preconceptions, and about a healthy relationship with the body. As an educator, you have the chance to shape how a child navigates their own wellbeing for years to come.
Here are a few ideas to help you start the talk on the right note.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s talk about the ABCs. What is sexual health education?
Sexual education involves teaching (and learning) about a wide variety of topics related to sex and sexuality. It may be taught in schools, in community programs, or online. A comprehensive approach to K-12 sexual health education includes topics such as:
In all topics, it is critical to use evidence-based education, as well as culturally-relevant, culturally-aware programs, and peer-to-peer education. Programs must also be developmentally appropriate and tailored to the age group (primary, middle, secondary, and post-secondary students).
Sexual education can be taught by almost anyone, from parents to teachers to faith leaders. However, it should always be taught by individuals certified to provide comprehensive, science-based sexual health education. Many universities offer certificate programs, while the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists offers a Sexuality Educator Certification which is nationally recognized.
Did you know that only 34% of young people around the world demonstrate accurate knowledge of HIV prevention? Or that two-thirds of young girls in some countries have no idea what’s happening to them when they begin menstruating for the first time?
For students, a high-quality sexual health education is about more than just The Talk. It’s about more than just sex. It’s about understanding their own health in an area that will impact them for the rest of their lives, and about giving them the resources they need to make healthy, informed decisions.
Think of it like going to the dentist. Kids know that they need to brush their teeth to stay healthy because they’re told what happens to their teeth if they don’t. Similarly, young people who have the knowledge and resources to make informed decisions have the power to make responsible choices.
Time and again, studies have shown that positive sexual health education has an outsize impact in reducing at-risk sexual behavior in adolescents.
Take one study in Ilorin Metropolis, Nigeria, which looked at a randomly selected co-educational school with a control group (which received no sexual health education) and a treatment group (which did receive sexual education). The study found a significant reduction in at-risk sexual behavior in the treatment group compared to the control group.
In a 2014 report on reducing teen pregnancy, Planned Parenthood found that teenagers who have sex education are half as likely to experience teen pregnancy compared to teens who attend abstinence-only programs. A further literature review of comprehensive sexual education program curricula found that most effective programs reduce risky sexual behavior by one-third.
A sexually healthy adolescent is about more than just sexual behavior.
Beyond preventing pregnancy and STDs, sexual health education offers a variety of health benefits across someone’s entire life:
The CDC has also found that students who participate in sexual health education programs are more likely to:
In short, sexual health education gives young people the tools to lead happier, healthier lives and form happier, healthier relationships, both with themselves and with others.
Unfortunately, sexual health education in the U.S. is often scattershot at best. There is widespread public support for sexual health education. In fact, 93% of parents support having sexual health education in middle school and 96% of parents support having sexual health education in high school.
And yet, many young people are not receiving the education and resources they need to make healthy decisions.
Currently, only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sexual health education, while 34 states mandate HIV education. Of those, only 10 require that it be medically accurate. Of states that do not require sexual health education, three require that it be medically accurate: Colorado, Illinois, and Michigan.
And while almost every state has some guidance on how and when sexual health education should be taught, students get the short straw there too. Despite the fact that guidance exists, the decision of where, when, and what to teach students is typically at the discretion of school districts, leaving a patchwork of education from one school district to the next.
Furthermore, the gap between the sexual education students should receive and the education they actually receive is more like a gulf. According to a 2014 CDC report, fewer than half of all high schools and only a fifth of middle schools teach all 16 topics recommended by the CDC as essential components of sex education.
In short? As a sexual health educator, your job is more important than ever.
With so many states and school districts lacking a comprehensive education, it’s important for responsible sexual health educators to understand what a complete curriculum would actually look like.
Broadly speaking, a comprehensive education would focus on:
Let’s break each one down.
When we say “environmental health”, we’re not talking about saving the planet. In this case, we’re talking about a safe, healthy environment--and the many areas that entails.
Take your social environment, for example.
Humans are deeply social, and young people are social in unique ways. They’re still discovering who they are and what they want, which makes them far more susceptible to peer influence and social pressures as they try to figure it out.
An effective sexual health curriculum will, among other things, help students accurately assess their environment and their peers. For example, it will give them the tools to accurately assess the level of risk-taking behaviors among their peers, such as how many peers use illegal drugs, correct misperceptions of peer and social norms, and give them the social tools to advocate for a healthy environment for themselves.
It will also address influences beyond a young person’s immediate social circle which have a subtler impact. The media is an excellent example of this. Students need to be able to recognize media and social influence so that they understand how they internalize those signals--and how they can make decisions for themselves based on what they see.
No sexual health program would be complete without addressing mental and emotional health. The trick is that this is a surprisingly far-reaching category.
For example, one aspect of mental and emotional health is individual attitudes, values, and beliefs. A strong sexual health curriculum is simultaneously respectful of diverse cultural backgrounds and values while also fostering attitudes, values, and beliefs that support positive health behaviors. Educators can also help students articulate what they value and believe so that they can incorporate lessons into their value system in a way that is meaningful to them.
On a more literal level, there is also a direct connection to be explored between mental health and sexual behavior. Unfortunately, risky sexual health behavior and mental health problems go hand-in-hand. Quality programs can be tailored to include information on high-risk substance abuse (such as illicit drugs and prescription drug abuse) and suicide prevention.
Above all, it is the educator’s job to create a safe space for their students. When having these kinds of discussions, students should always feel safe coming to their educator if a discussion hits on a deeper issue for them.
Above all, sexual health education is about establishing safety: a safe environment, safe behaviors, and a safe lifestyle.
When we talk about prevention, we’re typically referring to prevention of unwanted pregnancy and prevention of STD transmission. However, prevention can also refer to preventing unsafe situations. For example, if a student saw a friend being pressured, they could step in to safely assist their friend.
When we talk about safety, we’re typically referring to safe sex practices, like using protection. But safety can also refer to safe relationships. Recognizing the signs of abuse and domestic violence are critical components in this segment of the curriculum, as is a thorough discussion of consent.
You are what you eat--yes, even in sexual health.
In all areas, sexual health education is about reinforcing positive health behaviors to promote healthy outcomes. This includes nutrition.
To be clear, a strong sexual health program can and should incorporate a nuanced approach to nutrition. It’s not just about eating your vegetables or knowing a calorie count. It’s about young people having a positive relationship with food, their bodies, and by proxy, with their loved ones. A good program will help students understand how these areas link together.
We could write whole libraries on the many areas that ought to be included in sexual health education, but the gist of it is this: a good sexual health education program will address all the factors necessary to adequately equip students for healthy decision-making and health-promoting behaviors.
This can vary depending on your student body. A rural school in Montana with a significant Native American population is a whole different beast from an inner-city school. Take the time to consider what concerns are pressing for your students and what factors impact their health decisions. Your curriculum should be tailored to suit what they need the most from sexual health education.
Finally, it’s important to remember that sex education is not one-size-fits-all, and treating it as such not only disadvantages your students, but excludes some students from the conversation altogether.
Unfortunately, the sad reality is that many schools remain unsafe and unwelcoming environments for LGBTQ students. This is for one simple reason: schools are not offering resources tailored to their experiences.
For example, if your school only offers sexual health education predicated on sex and relationships between men and women, you automatically preclude (and devalue) same sex relationships. This leaves students to work it out on their own through resources that may or may not be reliable, and it sends the message that their relationships are not important.
An inclusive program will offer an inclusive understanding of gender, such as the Gender Triangle education tool, comprehensive gender terminology, and discussions that acknowledge and support transgender and non-binary students. From a sexual orientation perspective, remember to acknowledge bisexual student identity.
In your discussion of HIV, you can create an LGBTQ-inclusive dialogue by creating a more comprehensive lesson plan to account for the unheard voices of the LGBTQ community in that era. This is their history, and they should be able to have a complete understanding--and a respectful discussion--of how it relates to their lives today.
Resource Guide for Sex Educators [pdf]
Full Spectrum Educators' Guide to Implementing LGBTQ+ Inclusive Sex Ed [pdf]
Tools to Assess Curriculum Alignment with the National Sex Education Standards [xlsx]
National Sex Education Standards (Second Edition) [pdf]
Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education [pdf]
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