College is too late to expose students to facts about their own anatomy or to introduce tools for informed, consensual decision-making. I began my career at a liberal arts university in South Carolina where I focused on social justice education and sexual assault prevention. I quickly realized that many undergraduate students were receiving information on consent, healthy relationships, and sexual health for the first time. Sexual assault prevention work will not be effective if a measurable percentage of the student body had no prior foundation of sex education. I began to explore the national landscape of sex education and found an urgent social justice issue.
The current state of sex education in the United States is inadequate and inequitable. Sexual health disparities on the basis of race and ethnicity are clear and alarming nationwide, especially in states that do not mandate sex education in any form or those that require an abstinence only curriculum. 26 states in this nation omit essential sex education from their curricula by mandating a stress on abstinence only information, (Lowen, 2019). We as a nation employ deficit-based thinking to blame teenagers for their choices and behavior, yet we fail to recognize the system that withholds the education students need to be informed and healthy young adults. When comprehensive, fact-based sexual health education is systematically withheld, we can see disproportionate rates of teenage pregnancy and HIV transmission in Black and brown youth.
Let’s examine what’s not working. Texas, for example, does not require HIV information or contraception in its sex education curriculum for public schools. If – and the key word is if – sexual health information on HIV or contraception is offered in Texas, it must be taught from an abstinence-only framework (Guttmacher Institute, 2019).