Sex Education and Its Importance on Youth
Sex education has only truly been a topic of study for roughly the last 100 years. In its lifetime, thus far, it has morphed and changed into what we know today as information regarding intercourse, reproductive systems, and the consequences of having intercourse-positive or negative. What started after World War I when soldiers were suffering from diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea, became a government-funded nightmare for educators and sexual health advocates. With the many changes and mandates from government entities, sex education has gone through over the last 100 years, the origin of sex education was to inform young people of the dangers of STIs and STDs and how to prevent them. Instead of growing on this concept and arming students of today with the correct, factual, and scientifically proven information to help them navigate today’s sexual climate, they have been faced with a heavy moral hand and potential misinformation in recent years. The evidence that abstinence-only sex education is not effective is apparent in nearly every study conducted and included in this paper, and only strengthens the paper’s author’s opinion that comprehensive sex education is necessary.
Whereas some may argue that comprehensive sex education opens doors for earlier sexual encounters, comprehensive sex education is necessary given that while parents should be included in the teaching of sex education, sex education should be comprehensive and thorough and not give students all of the information that is reasonably necessary can have consequences such as teen pregnancy, higher STI and STD rates, and enforces potentially dangerous stereotypes. Currently, sex education within the state of Indiana, specifically, is teaching a curriculum that barely goes beyond reproductive systems, development up to adulthood, and how to say no to peer pressure and sex in general. It puts an unhealthy emphasis on abstinence and fails to teach students of any grade about safe sex practices, birth control, or the plethora of issues that can arise from the contraction of an STI or an STD. Nor does it teach how to handle these situations in the event a student is faced with one of these scenarios. Sex education has not always been this way, in fact, the original goal was indeed to inform students and prepare them for a world that has a lot to do with sex and the instances involved in maturing and dealing with the outcomes of having sex.
When World War I broke out in 1914, nearly 5 million troops were deployed to Europe to fight in the war. Oftentimes, soldiers from several fronts would find themselves on leave near small towns and would travel short distances to take time off when they had the time available. With plenty of young men to go around, brothels, prostitutes, and “good-time girls” found themselves busier than ever. This meant that there was a whole new breeding ground for diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis could find new hosts and would travel throughout the trenches, and since these diseases were not immediately noticeable, one could go weeks without knowing they were infected or that they were passing on the disease to others. Syphilis would come about as a painless chancre sore and would resolve itself spontaneously, whereas gonorrhea symptoms were painful and essentially would render a soldier unable to fight once these symptoms appeared. Instead of treating this as a health issue, the United States Government decided to treat these ailments as moral issues, thus making their prevention and treatment difficult to achieve (“Venereal Diseases · Medicine in World War I · Online Exhibits@Yale,” 2019). The response from the government also included morally shaming soldiers who associated themselves with sex workers with posters, pamphlets, and other publications and enforcing an agenda that included such shaming and abstinence. Unfortunately, many of their reactions came too late and the damage had been done. The Chamberlain-Kahn Act did several things, including imprisoning women for simply having a venereal disease, as STIs and STDs were called at the time. However, its most important function was allocating funds to sex education, which was now being viewed as a public health issue by Americans.
A few years after starting with the American Troops, sex education moved into American high schools as well. Materials were produced in order to give teachers the needed information to instruct students in this new and almost foreign topic. Educators experimented with the best way to introduce the curriculum to students, using film and literature to explore this emerging topic with students not too many years younger than some of the Troops returning from war (Johannah Cornblatt, 2009). Students were also warned about masturbation, with materials stating that their growth would be stunted, and they would not mature into young adults and be contributing members of society. Over the next two decades, sex education exploded, and students in college were able to sign up for Human Sexuality classes. However, the focus of these programs was to quell the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and sexually transmitted infections, put an end to prostitution, and keep sexual exploration safely within the confines of marriage (CorreJen, 2012).
In the 1960s, there was a large push for proper training from teachers and sex education instructors. It was around this time that pushback from religious organizations was also beginning to form. Sex education went from being a public health issue to being an issue of political leaning and treatment. The unfortunate bit of this matter is that the pushback had religious founding. In 1968, a group named Christian Crusade released a pamphlet asking if the public school setting was the right place to teach “raw sex” (“Sex Education in The United States, 1835 Through Today – Digg,” 2015). Other Christian organizations touted sex education as a plot for Communism.
With the introduction of a new kind of contraceptive, the birth control pill, sex without the concern of unwanted pregnancy became a new idea in an era known for its freedom of thought and free love (Huber & Firmin, 2014). Hippies and other free-thinkers expressed the idea that sex was a part of life and therefore it should have no constraints with consenting adults. Sex became less of a taboo topic and something that was discussed more openly, but not at all open by today’s standards. However, a push for “values-neutral” sex education was created by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) and was partially funded by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Foundation. Parents were still concerned and voicing their opinions, though, and sexual education remained a hot topic of debate with educators and parents over what was appropriate in schools.
With the finding that penicillin would treat syphilis and gonorrhea, sexually transmitted diseases and infections were treatable and, while still a moral nuisance, usually not regarded as dangerous unless an infection went untreated. Thus, the discussions involving these infections were usually brief and a bullet point on a short list versus being an entire list in itself. In the early 1980s, a new disease erupted through the medical community and became a household topic of discussion. HIV, and subsequently AIDS quickly spread both in infection and fear of the diseases as well. People who were infected with HIV could go months, or potentially years without even knowing they were carrying the disease (“A brief history of sex education,” 2019). It was so new that no one had been able to study this new disease and new findings come about even today. The way information about how HIV and AIDS spread and who could even contract the disease was a wonderful example of an early case of the spreading of misinformation. HIV and AIDS earned monikers such as “The Gay Disease” and was thought by some to only be contracted by men who had male sex partners. However, this spread of misinformation also created a push for more comprehensive information and strengthened advocates’ arguments for comprehensive sex education. However, the thought process that ruled seemed to be tied to the idea that comprehensive sex education would open the floodgates for teens to have sex, rather than prepare them for the potential, and now possibly fatal, outcomes.
In 1981, the Adolescent Family Life Act was passed, funding “chastity” and abstinence-only education. The act had strong religious undertones and called abstinence the only way to avoid the possibility of HIV and AIDS altogether. This was found, however, to not be entirely true, as people who received blood transfusions were at risk as well. One famous case was of course Ryan White, who at 13 years old was diagnosed with AIDS after receiving a transfusion for his hemophilia. While some still tried to spread rumors of his suspected sexuality, medical experts were quick to defend Ryan and his family. Granted, this doesn’t mean a quick resolution and acceptance was reached. It took nearly 2 years for Ryan to be able to return to school, even with proper education (“Ryan’s Story,” 2009).
In the 1990s, in response to AIDS, every state had mandates for, at the very least, HIV and AIDS education in response to the sweeping misinformation moving across the nation. This shifted the curriculum from being one based on morals and emphasis on marital status, as well as a shift away from abstinence-only education to a curriculum based on prevention education, sexually transmitted diseases, the benefits of condoms and contraception (“Curriculum Changes of Sex Education Through The Years – Educ 300: Education Reform, Past and Present,” 2016). In 1993, the Supreme Court of the United States also decided that federally-funded sex education programs must remove direct references to religion (Rivkind Shatz, n.d.). While references to religion and religious bases for not having sex before marriage were removed, this didn’t mean that the push for moral standards being used against comprehensive sex education were removed entirely. Title V of the Welfare Reform Act otherwise known as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), created a new system of grants to abstinence-only sex education curriculum, using a specific pointed guide, known as “A-H definition”:
Once again, abstinence-only programs were gaining traction, and the potential for funding drove states to adopt these programs. Roughly 4 years later, in 2000, The Special Projects of Regional and National Significance–Community-Based Abstinence Education added $31 million to the federal funding bank for abstinence-only programs (“The CSE’s National Sex Ed Conference » April 3-6, Newark, NJ » The History of Sex Education,” 2019). Even more, money was being poured into these programs, and no one was thinking to fact-check the information being released in these programs.
The welcome crusade on misinformation came in December of 2004 with the release of the Waxman Report (The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs) and shows just how skewed and misrepresented the information in abstinence-only programs. Numerous errors in the various curriculum’s that were included in the audit included false information about contraceptives, the risks of abortion, and had several scientific errors. Other findings were the blurring of religion and science, as well as the treatment of gender stereotypes as fact, stating that:
One curriculum teaches that women need “financial support,” while men need “admiration.” Another instructs: “Women gauge their happiness and judge their success on their relationships. Men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.”
One famous movie poked fun at sex education in the mid 200’s. In the sex education scene in the film Mean Girls (2004):
“Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die! Don’t have sex in the missionary position, don’t have sex standing up, just don’t do it, OK, promise? OK, now everybody take some rubbers. “(Waters, 2004)
While humorous, this scene was reminiscent of how sex education was approached in the 2000s. That being said, in 2006, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the grantees of abstinence-only programs were not required to review their materials for scientific accuracy. In theory, the information being presented as fact was true, but since no reviews were performed by scientific peers, the information given to educators may not have been factual and therefore, was still spreading information that was potentially incorrect.
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