June 3, 2016 – The State of Sex Education in the United States
For more than four decades, sex education has been a critically important but contentious public health and policy issue in the United States. Rising concern about nonmarital adolescent pregnancy beginning in the 1960s and the pandemic of HIV/AIDS after 1981 shaped the need for and acceptance of formal instruction for adolescents on life-saving topics such as contraception, condoms, and sexually transmitted infections. With widespread implementation of school and community-based programs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, adolescents’ receipt of sex education improved greatly between 1988 and 1995. In the late 1990s, as part of the “welfare reform,” abstinence only until marriage (AOUM) sex education was adopted by the U.S. government as a singular approach to adolescent sexual and reproductive health . AOUM was funded within a variety of domestic and foreign aid programs, with 49 of 50 states accepting federal funds to promote AOUM in the classroom. Since then, rigorous research has documented both the lack of efficacy of AOUM in delaying sexual initiation, reducing sexual risk behaviors, or improving reproductive health outcomes and the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education in increasing condom and contraceptive use and decreasing pregnancy rates. Today, despite great advancements in the science, implementation of a truly modern, equitable, evidence-based model of comprehensive sex education remains precluded by sociocultural, political, and systems barriers operating in profound ways across multiple levels of adolescents’ environments.