Teachers Have to Hide the Truth About Sex and It's Screwing Us Over
The Dutch model works way better.
Sebastian Jauregui / EyeEm / Getty Images/ Long Live Love
Sex education in the United States is a joke. Fewer than half of states (24) require it—and even when American students do get sex education, they don't necessarily receive comprehensive or truthful information. This statistic says it all: Just 13 states mandate that sex education provided to students be medically accurate. Sadly, this means that even though some states require sex education, some of them don't care whether the content is helpful or harmful.
Given this state of affairs, it's not surprising that research consistently shows US teenagers have among the highest rates of STDs, unintended pregnancies, and abortions in the industrialized world. It's important to clarify that this isn't because American teens are more sexually active compared to teens from other Western countries—they aren't. Rather, the difference is that US teens are less likely to use condoms and contraceptives, and it's because we aren't preparing our teens to negotiate and practice safe sex in the first place.
We need better sex ed—and, believe it or not, this is one area where Americans across the political spectrum agree. A recent survey of parents' attitudes toward sex education published in the journal PLOS ONE revealed that the vast majority (more than 90 percent) of both Republicans and Democrats think that sex education is important in both middle and high school. Further, regardless of political party, most of these parents believe that school-based sex education should be comprehensive and address a wide range of topics, including birth control, sexual orientation, and healthy relationships.
In other words, most Americans don't want the abstinence-only approach to sex education that's in so many of our schools. And that's a good thing, because this type of education not only doesn't work—it actually seems to be counterproductive. In fact, research has found that abstinence-only education is correlated with higher rates of teen pregnancy.
What we need instead is a comprehensive approach, one that's not unlike what the Dutch have been using for years. Earlier this summer, I taught a study-abroad course in the Netherlands on sex and culture, which gave me the opportunity to learn in great detail what the Dutch do differently with respect to sex ed. What I discovered is that it's truly a model for the rest of the world.
Unlike the US, sex education is required throughout the Netherlands and, while there is no national curriculum, there are certain principles that must be emphasized when it's taught, including sexual diversity and sexual communication.
The most widely used program in the country is called Long Live Love, and it goes well beyond the obligatory puberty lesson. Students are taught about having healthy relationships (including both starting and ending them), how to prepare for their very first sexual experience, how to communicate about what they want when it comes to sex, how to deal with sexual problems, as well as what they need to know about obtaining and using condoms and contraception (including how to talk to a partner about safe sex and what to do if your partner is resistant to using condoms).
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In short, students are provided with a detailed roadmap for navigating both romantic and sexual relationships. As part of this program, students have the opportunity to ask questions, and no topic is off-limits (unlike in some US states where teachers aren't permitted to talk about certain topics, like sexual orientation, even if a student asks about them). Teachers are also provided with training materials so that they can be confident and knowledgeable sources of information.
Students receive a booklet to take home that reinforces the lessons of this program and teaches them about sexual diversity, too. I had a chance to flip through one of them on my trip and was struck by the contents. Teens in diverse types of relationships—including both same-sex and interracial couples—were depicted talking about sexual desires and negotiating safe-sex. In addition, information was provided on sex acts other than penile-vaginal intercourse, such as oral sex and mutual masturbation.
All in all, it was a fascinating contrast to the abstinence-heavy US approach because the Dutch program depicts teens as sexual beings who have a number of choices and decisions to make when it comes to sex. Students are not assumed to be heterosexual, or that they're all going to wait until marriage to start having sex, either. Instead, students are given the tools they need so that they can be prepared if and when they decide to become sexually active.
And you know what? This approach works—and it works really well. Rates of STDs, pregnancy, and abortion among Dutch teens are a small fraction of what they are in the United States. Rates of condom and birth control pill use are much higher among teenagers in the Netherlands as well.
Upon returning from my trip, I learned that the US is on the cusp of moving backwards in terms of sex education. In the Trump administration's proposed federal budget for 2018, they seek to spend $160 million on highly ineffective abstinence-until-marriage programs, while eliminating funding for evidence-based sex education.
In other words, the Trump administration wants to invest in sex education programs that no one really wants—not even Republicans—while cutting funding for popular programs that actually get results. Let's hope this budget doesn't ultimately come to pass.
What Americans want when it comes to school-based sex education is what the Dutch are doing and what the evidence supports: a comprehensive approach. The real danger lies not in giving students too much information about sex, but rather in failing to give them enough.
Justin Lehmiller is the director of the social psychology program at Ball State University, a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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