Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

The State of Sex Ed in America

April 28th, 2014 by Saniya Lee Ghanoui

Guest Post by Jennifer Aldoretta

The things that consume my time are many and varied, but one of the most rewarding as of late has been volunteering for a local organization that aims to empower young women as they work through the many hardships of adolescence. Every Thursday for the past few months, I’ve spent the afternoon at a local high school with an incredible group of young women. The program focuses on healthy ways to manage the stresses of young adulthood, but the conversations often strayed towards topics like relationships, dating, sex, and even menstruation. Naturally, they were interested in these topics and seemed eager to get the opinions and advice of adult women who have undoubtedly had similar experiences.

During one meeting that I will likely not forget, the conversation made its way to—you guessed it—periods. The group was particularly fascinated by my current career path, and I was happy to discuss it with them. I imagine it’s not every day that one encounters someone like myself who is so invested in vaginas and other lady parts. Questions about Groove started flowing: how does the app work?, what made me decide to start a business?, what is menstrual cycle tracking?, and how does menstruation actually work?

Something that quickly became apparent to me was how little these young women knew about their bodies. I’ve known for quite some time that sex ed in the United States isn’t the greatest, because I was once a 16-year-old. But when questions like what is ovulation? and what are ovaries? arose, the pitfalls of our current sex education curriculums became overwhelmingly obvious. And I became increasingly angry—not angry with this group of completely amazing young women, of course, but angry at a system that is so blatantly failing them. Unfortunately, since we were on school property, there was only so much that I was allowed to tell this group of inquisitive young women about their bodies (though I have to admit that I knowingly pushed these limits).

The birth rate among teenagers in the United States is higher than in any other developed nation. We belong to a system in which our young people are not being provided even the most basic information about their bodies—have you seen the hilariously pathetic results of adults attempting to label the male and female reproductive systems? Despite our lacking curriculums, we (for some reason) still like to place blame for risky sexual behavior, spreading of STIs, and teen pregnancies entirely on the shoulders of our young people. This seems like an obvious question, but how does this make any sense? We should instead be focusing on how we can improve the current system to prevent these things in the first place. It seems so obvious, yet the concept seems to be lost on those who create these education standards.

Let us properly educate our nation’s young people and then we can point figures and engage in discussions about ways to lower teen pregnancy rates and the spread of STIs—though I have a hunch the conversation might be moot at that point. A single (and far too basic) sex education class cannot possibly create an informed generation. It’s ridiculous to blame an individual for being misinformed in a system that does not inform. It’s ridiculous that our system, in many cases, does not allow (or require) educators to provide direct answers to direct questions. Only 19 of the 51 states in the US require that information provided in sex ed classes be medically, factually, or technically accurate. That’s less than 40%! And still, there are questions being asked and fingers being pointed as though teenagers have all the information they need to make informed choices. Is it a coincidence that nations with more comprehensive sex education programs tend to have lower teen pregnancy rates? I think not! Take a gander at the stats of our northern neighbors.

Sex education and teen pregnancy are not mutually exclusive (sorry, politicians). I’m not advocating for contraceptive education in schools—because that’s a battle for another day—but information about the male and female reproductive systems (which is vital for maintaining good bodily health) is not something that should be glossed over.

Because what good are we doing our young people when ovulation is a foreign concept?

7 responses to “The State of Sex Ed in America”

  1. James says:

    “I’m not advocating for contraceptive education in schools—because that’s a battle for another day”

    That’s a wise approach because so often the controversies in sex ed revolve around matters of contraceptive education and relationship choices (e.g. abstinence) that actually teaching students how the reproductive system works gets lost in the shuffle. Too often “medically accurate sex education” is both used as a euphemism for contraceptive education and assumed to be a euphemism for contraceptive education, which clouds the issue.

    But the core of what sex ed is supposed to teach is reproduction and teaching basic biology really isn’t controversial.

  2. Great post.

    Have you seen the study regarding perceived infertility in teens and young women? Many come to think that, because they have unprotected sex a number of times and do not get pregnant, that they are infertile and then decide to continue having unprotected sex (as the risk of STIs and pregnancy of course). Yet there seems to be a reluctance to explain to teens about fertile and infertile times of the month, about ovulation, and so on. Is it because we fear this knowledge would make them have more sex?!

    I always remember reading or being told about Ancient Egypt and how the teen women would be encouraged to have a lot of sex during their younger years, because it was known that teenagers don’t tend to ovulate every month, and instead more sporadically.

    I think body literacy must have other positive advantages for teens – of those I’ve talked to that teach this in schools (mostly Catholic schools) they believe it to increase confidence and self-esteem.

  3. James, I totally agree here! It’s so disappointing to me that teaching basic biology has come to be synonymous with contraceptive education. Especially because, in my experience, young people are REALLY interested to learn how their bodies work. Yet we’re denying them that information for reasons that (when you really boil it down) are highly political.

  4. Yes! The confidence and self-esteem that come along with proper education is incredible – perhaps the lowering of teen pregnancy rates, STIs, and perceived infertility should really just be an awesome side effect of that. Though I’m not convinced this point of view would satisfy those who are so vehemently opposed to proper sex ed.

    As a society, we seem to be too busy arguing about the politics of it to realize how detrimental the current system really is.

  5. James says:

    I see two reasons why this isn’t taught: One is a fear that teen girls will rely on FABMs without proper training if they are taught. It’s a common fear, but one that is horribly overblown. Better knowledge tends to lead to better decision making about sex.

    The second, I believe, is because many of the teachers don’t know about it themselves.

  6. So true…

    If teachers (and even many doctors) don’t know about this stuff, then we can’t expect them to teach it. Vicious cycle.

    I think we tend to put too little faith in the decision-making ability of teenagers. The Canadian document I linked to shows that their sex ed programs have not only lowered teen pregnancy, but have also INCREASED the age that teens start having sex. So, overall, the fears we talk so much about seem to be unfounded.

  7. Lisa Leger says:

    The Canadian SIECCAN report Jennifer links to says that abstainance only sex ed is ineffectual and unethical. This makes me proud to be a Canadian with sensible sex ed! But then I remember that we are also the worse polluters per capita on the planet and pride diminishes…

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