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Sex Education in Public Schools

All states are involved in sex education for public schoolchildren to some degree. However, states differ greatly in the extent of involvement and whether comprehensive or abstinence-only programs are required. In general, there are two types of sex education programs found in the United States: comprehensive and abstinence-only-until-marriage.

Below, we discuss the different state approaches to sex education and federal funding programs. For more information, visit FindLaw's Curriculum Standards and Funding section, including Curriculum and Ideology and Curriculum Decision Making.

Comprehensive Sex Education

This type of program teaches about abstinence as the best way to avoid STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and unintended pregnancy, and also teaches about the use of condoms and contraception to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy and STIs, including HIV. It also teaches interpersonal and communication skills and helps young people to explore their values, goals, and options.

Comprehensive programs generally teach that sexuality is a natural, normal, healthy part of life. Along with teaching about the benefits of abstinence, they also include accurate, factual information on abortion, masturbation, and sexual orientation. These programs also teach about proper use of condoms and contraception, the options for women facing unintended pregnancies, and how religious values can play an important role in an individual's decisions about sexual expression. These programs include topics such as human development, relationships, interpersonal skills, sexual expression, sexual health, and society.

Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage

Sometimes called Sexual Risk Avoidance Programs, this type of program teaches abstinence as the only correct and moral option of sexuality for teenagers. This program typically censors information about contraception and condoms for the prevention of STIs and unintended pregnancy.

Abstinence-only programs generally teach that sexuality outside of marriage will have harmful social, psychological, and physical consequences. These programs teach that abstinence is the only acceptable behavior. Topics in these programs are typically limited to abstinence-only and to the negative consequences of pre-marital sexuality. These programs often omit topics such as abortion, masturbation, and sexual orientation. Contraception is generally discussed in terms of failure rates and STIs are discussed as being the inevitable result of pre-marital sexual behavior. Abstinence-only commonly promotes specific religious values, even if not explicitly labeled as such.

State Sex Education Policies

The following are reflective of sex education policies in the United States:

  • 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education, 20 of which require contraceptive and HIV education.
  • 33 states and the District of Columbia require students to receive HIV/AIDS instruction.
  • 19 states require that if provided, sex education must be medically, factually, or technically accurate.
  • 18 states and the District of Columbia require that information on contraception be provided.
  • 37 states require that information on abstinence be provided, 12 of which require that abstinence be stressed.
  • 19 states require that instruction on the importance of engaging in sexual activity only within marriage be provided.
  • 13 states require the inclusion of information on the negative outcomes of teen sex and pregnancy.

Additionally, many states define parents' rights concerning sex education:

  • 37 states and the District of Columbia require school districts to allow parental involvement in sex education programs.
  • Three states require parental consent before a child can receive instruction.
  • 35 states and the District of Columbia allow parents to opt-out on behalf of their children.

Federal Funding

Beginning in the 1980s, policymakers used significant tax-payer money to fund abstinence-only programs. Despite the evidence that abstinence-only programs have been ineffective, federal funding for these programs continues today. However, in 2010 and 2011, Congress eliminated funding for two-thirds of existing abstinence-only programs, including the Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program and the abstinence-only funding granted as part of the Adolescent Family Life Act.

Congress has provided funding for two new sex education initiatives to support both evidence-based programs and comprehensive approaches to prevent unintended teen pregnancy and STIs, including HIV. Additionally, Congress has protected funding for HIV/STI prevention education at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Adolescent and School Health.

The new funding that began in 2010 is under the jurisdiction of the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) within the Office of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). The OAH works in cooperation with all relevant agencies in implementing the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative and coordinates all activities within HHS that relate to adolescent disease prevention, health promotion, preventive health services, and health information and education.

In addition, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, through the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), provides young people with medically accurate and age-appropriate sex education in order to reduce unintended pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and other STIs through evidence-based programs.

Considerations

Most states today have policies requiring sex education in public schools. The debate over the merits of abstinence-only versus comprehensive sex education has led many states to enact specific content requirements. You can review your state's law to learn more about sex education requirements, or contact an education law attorney if you have additional questions.

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