When kids don’t have access to high-quality sex education, or “sex ed,” they have an obvious, but unreliable alternative: Google.
That’s a problem because searching online for information about sex often leads straight to pornography.
Although the internet also has plenty of medically accurate health information, most kids don’t understand how to differentiate among falsehoods, fantasies, and trusted medical sources. And this has real-world repercussions for teenagers and their sexual partners. A 2010 Dutch study found that the more frequently a teenager is exposed to porn, the more likely they are to believe it’s a realistic depiction of sex.
The fact remains that many young people trust the internet to answer their most intimate questions. The 2017 study TechSex: Youth Sexuality and Health Online used survey results from 1,500 teens and young adults, ages 13 to 24, about their use of technology. Twenty-one percent said information found through Google or another search engine was the “single most effective way to learn about sex, sexuality, and reproductive health.”
You read that right: the single most effective way.
Googling was surpassed only by consulting a doctor, nurse, or clinic (30 percent), and was considered more effective than health class (14 percent), or a school health clinic (3 percent).
Some online resources do provide medically accurate and nonjudgmental sexual health information, such as Sex, Etc., Planned Parenthood, Scarleteen, and a project from Columbia University called Go Ask Alice.
But according to a fact sheet from the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to evidence-based sexual and reproductive health policy, teens may also access websites with incorrect content. In one study, out of 177 sexual health websites that teens might visit, 46 percent had inaccuracies about contraception, and 35 percent had inaccuracies about abortion.
Laura Lindberg, PhD, principal research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute and an expert on adolescent health, emphasized that it’s not reasonable to assume teens will find their way to accurate information on the internet.
“You can’t Google your way to good health,” Lindberg told Healthline. “We need to make sure other resources are available to teens.”
Why sex ed matters
The intense media attention surrounding sex ed might lead you to believe it’s hugely controversial. Yet most people, including parents, agree that age-appropriate sex ed is as important as anything else students learn in school.
In fact, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) found that 93 percent of parents of junior high school students, and 91 percent of parents of high school students, believe it’s important to have sex ed in the school curriculum. The vast majority of these parents think sex ed should also include instruction on contraception.
It’s easy to understand why most parents want their children to have more sexual health information, not less. A 2012 data analysis done by the Guttmacher Institute, and co-authored by Lindberg, found that teens are more likely to delay first sexual intercourse if they learn about both waiting to have sex and birth control options.
The study involved nearly 5,000 young adults. Researchers found that those who received education about both abstinence and contraception were older the first time they had sex and more likely to use condoms. They also had healthier partnerships.
But despite these positives, many children in the United States are not receiving comprehensive, science-based sex ed.
How sex ed became political
The government first got involved in sexual health education following outbreaks of syphilis and gonorrhea during World War I. But it wasn’t until the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s that sex ed became such a divisive political issue.
At the time, religious conservative groups organized a movement against sex ed in public schools, claiming that it encouraged “promiscuity,” and might even make children easy targets for “communist indoctrination,” according to a report from Newsweek.
In the 1980s, the AIDS pandemic exposed the dire need for comprehensive sex ed. But even as the U.S. surgeon general called for explicit sex ed programs in schools, including detailed instructions on condom use, conservative groups pushed for “abstinence-only” sex ed.
Under the Reagan administration, the federal government began funding abstinence-only programs that focused exclusively on teaching children to wait until marriage to have sex. In 1987, the New York Times reported that President Reagan urged schoolchildren to abstain from sex as the best way to avoid contracting AIDS.
Over the years, funding for abstinence-only education ballooned. President Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act of 1996 allocated $50 million annually to abstinence-only grants. And President George W. Bush more than doubled abstinence-only funding from $80 million in 2001 to $200 million in 2007. In total, SIECUS reported the federal government has allocated $1.5 billion to abstinence-only sex ed programs to date.
But there’s one big problem with abstinence-only sex ed: It doesn’t work.
A 2007 meta-study of the results of abstinence-only programs found that none of them actually increased the rate of abstinence, while rates of pregnancy and STD transmission remained the same.
A series of studies on teenagers who took a “virginity pledge” — a promise, usually to parents and peers, to remain abstinent until marriage — found that these teens did delay the first time they had sex by an average of 18 months, but they were one-third less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active. In communities with a higher percentage of pledgers, overall STD rates were also higher.
Despite the evidence, it wasn’t until 2010 that President Obama eliminated funding for two-thirds of abstinence-only sex ed programs, and allocated $110 million for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI), which encourages evidence-based sex ed that includes how to avoid pregnancy and STDs.
But under President Trump, support for abstinence-only sex education will once again come from the highest levels of government. In March, the White House proposed a $50 million cut to the TPPI, representing nearly half of the program’s funding.
In June, Trump appointed Valerie Huber, the president of Ascend, an advocacy organization for abstinence education, to a high-level post within the Department of Health and Human Services. Ascend was formerly known as the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA).
Huber is sharply opposed to TPPI, claiming it advocated “sex promotion rather than health promotion” in a blistering op-ed published in The Hill earlier this year.
Though SIECUS reported abstinence-only sex ed programs are “broadly ineffective,” it appears they aren’t going away anytime soon.
A mishmash of sex ed policies across the country
At present, sex ed policies vary dramatically from state to state, as well as by school district.
This means that a student in Massachusetts could have starkly different sex ed instruction than a student in Louisiana. And students in different parts of Massachusetts could have different instruction as well.
As of last year, only 21 states and the District of Columbia required that public schools teach sex ed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A map on the website Sex, Etc. breaks down the laws in each state — and there are some surprises. Even some supposedly liberal states — like California and Connecticut — don’t have state laws that require sex ed to be taught in schools.
Only 20 states require that information about sex and HIV be “medically, factually, or technically accurate,” and the definition of “medically accurate” also varies by state.
Advocates for comprehensive sex ed point out that some kids are being taught completely false things about sex — and that could have deadly consequences.
For example, a study of 604 students who received abstinence-only sex ed found that one-third believed male condoms never prevent the spread of STDs and HIV. But in fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that “consistent and correct use of the male latex condom reduces the risk of transmission.”
Equally false is the assertion in one abstinence-only teacher’s guide, called Reasonable Reasons to Wait, that “AIDS can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact,” according to a report from SIECUS.
The same SIECUS report found plenty of opinions masquerading as facts within abstinence-only curriculum. For instance, a student manual from Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education warns, “Girls need to be careful with what they wear because males are looking! The girl might be thinking fashion, while the boy is thinking sex. For this reason, girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts.”
Turns out, the United States has a patchwork of antiquated sex ed curriculum since most states have few laws concerning sex ed. Laws regarding HIV and STD prevention or abstinence-only lessons vary dramatically.
Arizona, for example, does not require sex ed be taught at all, but legislates that if a district chooses to teach HIV and STD prevention, it can't portray homosexuality as a "positive alternative lifestyle.”
Meanwhile in Texas, the law does not require that sex ed be taught, but if a district offers a sex ed program, abstinence must be stressed as the only effective way of preventing pregnancy and STDs.
How is this faring for the state of Texas? It has the fifth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, and is the number one state in the country for repeat teen pregnancies, meaning teens become parents for the second or third time during their teenage years, according to a Dallas News report. Notably, Texas teens are prohibited from accessing prescription birth control without parental consent, even when these teens are already parents.
Searching for high-quality sex ed
When teachers develop sex ed lesson plans on their own, the results can be of “variable quality,” explained Nicole Cushman, MPH.
Cushman is the executive director of Answer, a national organization that provides sexuality education to young adults. She told Healthline that, ideally, when a school board is making decisions about sex ed, it will set up a student health advisory committee (SHAC), comprised of teachers, students, parents, medical professionals, and social workers.
The SHAC meets to establish sex ed curriculum that adheres to the state guidelines or the state standards, taking input from all parties involved.
Ideally sex ed lesson plans will come from a “reputable public health organization with specific expertise in human sexuality, teen pregnancy prevention, and STD prevention,” Cushman said. Answer, and its teen-run magazine, Sex, Etc., are both resources for sex ed.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is abstinence-only curriculum typically “ideologically driven … upholding traditional views of sex and morality,” Cushman said.
Given that abstinence-only lesson plans often contain no information about preventing pregnancy, Cushman pointed out, “I wouldn’t consider that ‘sex education.’”
Lindberg, of the Guttmacher Institute, told Healthline that there is currently “a call to create scientific standards [for sex ed] due to a deluge of programs that were driven by philosophy” rather than by evidence.
How parents can get involved
Parents can have more influence on sex ed in their child’s school district than they may realize.
Logan Levkoff, PhD, a sexuality educator, and author of “Third Base Ain't What It Used to Be,” said parents often don’t know the specifics of what their child is being taught in sex ed.
Every parent has a right to ask the school principal about the content of the sex ed curriculum their child will receive, she stressed.
Parents should ask for the name of the textbook or lesson plans that will be used for their child’s sex ed classes, and acquire a copy of it online, Levkoff advised. Then parents should read the material and see if it aligns “with basic facts and ethics.” If the material looks incomplete or biased, that’s when parents should get other allies and advocates on board to improve the curriculum.
If parents who support comprehensive sex ed don't speak up, the other side will.
As Cushman noted, ideologically driven groups are a “small, but vocal minority,” with their objections during public comment forums.
“All it takes is one or two squeaky wheels,” she said, to thwart comprehensive sex ed in schools.