Sex Education as a Human Right and How United States Law Is Denying its Citizens
Author: Caro Confort, 2019.
“Currently in the United States, legislation concerning sex education in schools is created at the state level, rather than federal. This means that there are no laws creating a nation-wide standard with which all sex education curricula must be held. As a result, sex education in the US is incredibly problematic and must be critically evaluated.”
Image Source: The Huffington Post.
Human rights are inherent to all people and are essential to each individual’s human dignity. These rights, including freedom of expression and the right to education and adequate health care, exist ultimately to ensure the safety, health, and happiness of people everywhere (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). More specifically, the right to education ensures that individuals are able to experience the “full development of the human personality”, including one’s sexuality, while the right to health care ensures access to the “necessary social services” to allow a “standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of all people (UDHR). Governments cannot ensure their citizen’s ability to access these rights without a commitment to making “comprehensive, evidence-based, nondiscriminatory sexual and reproductive health information” accessible and wide-spread (An International Human Right: Sexuality Education for Adolescents in Schools). Since sexuality is inherent to all human beings and learning about it contributes to the realization of full personhood, people everywhere have the right to learn about their sexual health (Pimentel 34).
For adolescents and teens, learning about sex is a vital part of a comprehensive, practical, and empowering educational experience. Sex education can be defined as the acquisition of knowledge and shaping of inclusive attitudes around sex, sexuality, sexual identity, relationships, and intimacy (Kumar & Kumar 24). It should be designed to empower individuals to make informed and confident choices to best protect their physical, emotional, and moral beings (Pimentel 34). By providing students with these skills, sex education aims not only to reduce the risks of potentially negative outcomes of sexual behavior, such as unwanted pregnancies or the transmission of STIs, but also to help students engage in healthy, rewarding, and enjoyable sexual behavior when they are ready (Kumar & Kumar 24). Giving students all the necessary information on sex and sexuality allows them to feel comfortable talking about sex, teaches them when and how to ask for help or guidance, and generally helps them take better control over their own lives (Pimentel 34).
Sex education is a human right because it impacts not only the health of human beings, but also their quality of life (Kumar & Kumar 25). The skills developed through sex education translate to other important life skills, such as the ability to communicate clearly, listen effectively, negotiate with others, make informed decisions, deal with peer pressure, and accept and tolerate views or lifestyles different from their own (Kumar & Kumar 24). These important skills have led the international community to set a standard that requires governments to guarantee “the rights of adolescents to health, life, education and non-discrimination by providing them comprehensive sexuality education…that is scientifically accurate and objective, and free of prejudice and discrimination” (An International Human Right: Sexuality Education for Adolescents in Schools).If these rights are to be realized, comprehensive sex education must be part of the education process for students all over the world.
Currently in the United States, legislation concerning sex education in schools is created at the state level, rather than federal. This means that there are no laws creating a nation-wide standard with which all sex education curricula must be held. As a result, sex education in the US is incredibly problematic and must be critically evaluated. This paper argues that existing legislation around sex education in the United States denies American citizens access to their basic human rights. First, the existence of the right to sex education will be identified in several international human rights documents. Then, a comprehensive review of sex education legislation in the United States, with a particular focus on funding and ‘abstinence only until married’ curricula, will be used to highlight the inadequacies of the current state of sex education in America. The paper concludes with the assertion that a rights based approach to sex education must be adopted to best improve the health and happiness of the American people.
Sex Education in International Human Rights Treaties
The demand for sex education as a human right can be found implicitly and explicitly in a number of international documents including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (An International Human Right: Sexuality Education for Adolescents in Schools). Both the treaties and their respective United Nations Committees have set standards that recommend states ensure sex education programs are comprehensive, accurate, objective, evidence based, and non-ideological.
There are several examples of committees making efforts to hold nations accountable to a standard that includes sex education as a basic human right. In 2004, the Human Rights Committee asked Poland to “ensure that schools include accurate and objective sexuality education in their curricula,” linking the obligation of sex education under the right to life in the ICCPR (An International Human Right: Sexuality Education for Adolescents in Schools). The Committee on the Rights of the Child states explicitly that “consistent with their obligations to ensure the right to life, survival and development of the child, State parties must ensure that children have the ability to acquire the knowledge and skills to protect themselves and others as they begin to express their sexuality” (An International Human Right: Sexuality Education for Adolescents in Schools). In 2009, the European Committee of Social Rights found that “censoring, withholding or intentionally misrepresenting health-related information, including sexuality education and information” is unacceptable (An International Human Right: Sexuality Education for Adolescents in Schools). General Recommendations from the Committee for CEDAW states, “In order to make an informed decision about safe and reliable contraceptive measures, women must have information about contraceptive measures and their use, and guaranteed access to sex education and family planning services” (Pimentel 36).
In addition to the statements made by these committees, many international human rights treaties also recognize sex education as a human right. Article 10(h) of CEDAW states an obligation to create “access to specific educational information to help to ensure the health and well-being of families, including information and advice on family planning” (Pimentel 36). Article 12 of the ICESCR states that governments are required to take all steps necessary for the “prevention, treatment, and control of epidemic diseases,” such as HIV/AIDS (Santelli et al. 277). The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has interpreted this to mean a required “establishment of prevention and education programs for behavior-related health concerns such as STDs, in particular HIV/AIDS, and those adversely affecting sexual and reproductive health” (Santelli et al. 277). The UNCRC says in Article 24 that “States Parties shall pursue full implementation of this right [highest attainable standard of health] and, in particular, shall take appropriate measures: (f) to develop preventive health care, guidance for parents and family planning education and services” (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 8). Article 29 also states that “States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to: The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential” (UNCRC 9). As illustrated above, children can only reach their fullest potential when sex education is part of their educational experience.
Sex Education Laws in the United States
In order to understand sex education in the United States, it is important to examine the legislation that dictates it. As sex education laws are made at the state level, as opposed to the federal level, there is a wide range of laws surrounding sex ed.
In terms of general requirements:
- 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education be taught in schools
- 27 states and the District of Columbia mandate that when sex ed is provided, it must meet certain general requirements. For example:
- 13 states require that sex education instruction be medically accurate
- 8 states require that information provided is appropriate for students’ cultural backgrounds and not biased against race, religion, or ethnicity
- 2 states prohibit curricula from promoting religion
- 37 states and the District of Columbia give parents permission to remove their children entirely from sex education instruction (Sex and HIV Education)
Another set of requirements are legislated on curricula for states that require sex education:
- 18 states and the District of Columbia require that information on contraception be provided
- 37 states require information on abstinence be provided
- 27 states require that abstinence be stressed
- 12 states require that sexual orientation be discussed
- 9 states require that this discussion be inclusive
- 3 states require that only negative information be given on sexual orientation
- 11 states require their curricula include information on how to talk to parents and other family members about sex
- 20 states require when talking about HIV that information on condoms and contraception to be included
- 39 states require that information on abstinence be included (Sex and HIV Education)
- 10 states and the District of Columbia mention the terms “healthy relationships,” “sexual assault,” or “consent” in their sex education programs (Shapiro & Brown)
There are also individual states that have made their own rather sinister laws regarding specific sex education topics. For example, Oklahoma has a law that requiresboth state health departments and local schools to provide ‘educational materials’ to the public that “clearly and consistently teach that abortion kills a living human being.” Additionally, both Louisiana and Tennessee have laws prohibiting abortion providers from providing sex education in schools (Sex Education Laws and State Attacks). These laws are incredibly problematic because they provide students with information that is not only scientifically inaccurate but also incredibly selective, leaving out vital information and resources that would help students lead happier and healthier sex lives.
Since decisions about sex education are made at the state and local level, there are no federal laws in place that dictate what proper comprehensive sex education curricula should look like (Sex Education Laws and State Attacks). As illustrated from the legislation above, there is no guarantee that schools will provide sex education at all, and if they do, there is little to no guarantee that the information they are providing is accurate, productive, healthy, useful, or empowering. In fact, less than half of high schools and only one fifth of middle schools in the United States are currently teaching sexual health topics that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) considers ‘essential’ to raising healthy young people (Sex Education Laws and State Attacks). In the US, the average high school requirements for sex education total a shocking 6.2 hours of instruction on human sexuality, with only 4 hours or less on HIV, STIs, and pregnancy prevention (Hall et al. 595).
Funding for Sex Education in the US
Funding plays a huge role in the way that sex education is legislated in the US. Since 1981, federal funding for sex education has been put almost exclusively towards abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs (Sex Education Laws and State Attacks). In 1981, under Republican President Ronald Reagan, the federal government utilized the Adolescent Family Life Act to support abstinence-promotion programs, which allowed them to provide funding to community and faith based organizations that promoted ‘chastity’ and ‘self-discipline’ (Santelli et al. 274). This continued until 1996, when states with AOUM programs received a major increase in federal support thanks to the Title V AOUM program. This was accompanied by a shift in funding to go exclusively to programs promoting abstinence only and restricting the sharing of other sexual health information (Santelli et al. 274). The Title V AOUM program included an “eight-point A-H federal statutory definition of ‘abstinence education,’ which specifies, in part, that programs must have as their ‘exclusive purpose’ the promotion of abstinence outside of marriage” (Santelli et al. 274). Programs funded through Title V were not permitted to “‘be inconsistent with any aspect of the abstinence education definition’ and, therefore, could not in any way advocate contraceptive use or discuss contraceptive methods except to emphasize their failure rates” (Santelli et al. 274). Without this information that Title V bans, students are unable to make fully informed decisions about their bodies. This federally mandated restriction of information has severely limited the amount of relevant and scientifically accurate information students have been able to receive in sex education programs throughout the country.
The Community-Based Abstinence Education program was then created in 2000, which made grants directly to community-based organizations, including faith-based groups. Despite a significant cut in 2010, federal funding has continued to grow over the passing years. In fiscal year 2016 alone, funding for AOUM programs was increased to $85 million per year (Hall et al. 595). Between fiscal years 1982 and 2017, Congress has spent over $2 billion on domestic AOUM programs. This kind of funding continues at both the federal and state levels today (Sex Education Laws and State Attacks).
AOUM Program Effectiveness
AOUM programs in the US have faced at least ten years of vehement opposition from the medical community, public health professionals, sex educators, and the human rights community at large (Hall et al. 595). There are a number of studies that have conducted to test the effectiveness of AOUM programs as compared to comprehensive risk reduction (CRR) sexual health programs, which mirror the comprehensive sex education standards discussed above. A study done in 2007 found no scientific evidence that AOUM programs “demonstrate efficacy in delaying initiation of sexual intercourse, reducing the number of sexual partners, or facilitating secondary abstinence” (Santelli et al. 276). Another study done by the CDC in 2012 looking at CRR programs as compared to AOUM programs found that CRR programs “had favorable effects on current sexual activity (i.e., abstinence), number of sex partners, frequency of sexual activity, use of protection (condoms and/or hormonal contraception), frequency of unprotected sexual activity, STIs and pregnancy”, while no conclusion could be drawn on the effectiveness of AOUM programs (Santelli et al. 276). It has also been found that AOUM programs have “little demonstrated efficacy in helping adolescents delay intercourse” or promoting healthy attitudes about sex and sexuality (Santelli et al. 278).
The findings of these studies seem to reflect the current statistics surrounding sexual health in the United States. AOUM sex education in the US withholds information “about condoms and contraception, promotes religious ideologies and gender stereotypes, and stigmatizes adolescents with non-heteronormative sexual identities,” which has harmful consequences for the American population (Hall et al. 595). In countries where young people receive regular access to contraceptive education and counseling, their pregnancy and birth rates are a fraction of those of their American peers (Santelli et al. 275). As of 2018, the US has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the developed world and 75% of pregnancies among 15-19 year olds are unplanned (Teen Pregnancy). In 2017, rates of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia climbed for the fourth consecutive year in a row. Last year, nearly 2.3 million Americans were diagnosed with one of these sexually transmitted diseases, reaching the highest number ever recorded nationwide and breaking the 2016 record by over 200,000 cases (Howard). These statistics come as no surprise considering that only a small percentage of young people wait until marriage to have sexual intercourse, while the vast majority are also receiving ineffective AOUM sex education (Santelli et al. 275).
AOUM programs have also been both problematic and discriminatory towards certain groups of youth. AOUM programs highlight marriage between a man and a woman as the only appropriate context for sexual intercourse to occur, completely invalidating the experiences, sexual or otherwise, of LGBTQIA+ students (Kantor). If information on prevention of STIs or condom use is included, it rarely caters to the needs of students that have sex with students of the same gender. This emphasis on sex within marriage can also marginalize students who have experienced non-consensual sexual abuse outside of marriage, ultimately making them feel ashamed and responsible. In these programs, two-parent families are also idealized, which marginalizes the realities and experiences of young people who come from any type of family unit outside of that rigid guideline (Kantor).
AOUM programs have often been found to marginalize women by perpetuating harmful and degrading gender stereotypes about how young men and women should act. One such program asserted that “women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships. Men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.” Another taught that “the father gives the bride to the groom because he is the one man who has had the responsibility for protecting her throughout her life. He is now giving his daughter to the only other man who will take over this protective role” (Kantor). While some may argue these statements are ideological and based on belief systems, blatantly false statements about women and sex are also included, such as “[w]hile a man needs little or no preparation for sex, a woman often needs hours of emotional and mental preparation” (Kantor). The implications of these gendered stereotypes go far beyond the bedroom. They shape how men and women interact by perpetuating the idea that men are inherently entitled to women’s bodies, that women are valued exclusively for their appearance and their relationships with men and not for their intellect, that women and their bodies exist solely to be sexually objectified, etc. The perpetuation of these norms makes it incredibly difficult for women to be seen as equals and incredibly easy for men to marginalize them.
A Rights-Based Approach to Sex Education
It is abundantly clear that an AOUM approach to sex education is not only ineffective, but also unethical, medically inaccurate, and dangerous for adolescents. To ensure a comprehensive sex education program for young people both in the US and worldwide, applying a rights-based approach to sexuality education is key. This approach looks at sex education through a new and even more comprehensive framework that includes sexuality education intertwined with human rights, the promotion of gender equality, and the overall improvement of sexual health. It recognizes young people as the holders of “inalienable sexual rights,” including the right to a comprehensive, medically accurate, nondiscriminatory opportunity to learn about their own sexuality (Berglas et al. 289). Comprehensiveness is achieved through broadening the lens to encompass ideas about health promotion, empowerment, agency, and citizenship. As part of a rights-based approach, content is expanded to “engage youth in critical thinking about the complex contextual issues that influence their sexuality and relationships, including gender norms, power dynamics, cultural norms, individual rights and responsibilities in relationships, sexual diversity, violence, and sexual expression”(Berglas et al. 289).
The idea of sex education as a human right can be found in a number of international human rights documents, including the UDHR, ICESCR, ICCPR, CEDAW, and the UNCRC. Human rights, as defined and outlined in these documents, guarantee people everywhere an inherent right to adequate health care and a comprehensive education, both in an effort to ensure the populations right to a safe, healthy, and happy life. In order for people to grow and develop into their full selves, an intimate understanding of their sexuality and a clear command of sexual health are integral parts of this well-being. Comprehensive sex education allows young people to build skills they will use to communicate with others, to protect themselves, to enjoy their bodies, to handle peer pressure, to make informed decisions, and to be tolerant of other views and lifestyles that are different from their own.
Based on this understanding of sex education, this paper argues that the legislation around sex education in the United States denies American citizens access to their basic human rights. US laws around sex education are made at the state level, which means there is a wide array of positive and negative restrictions that affect the type of information young people across the nation are receiving about sex. Federal funding contributes to the problem, as it almost exclusively backs AOUM sex education programs, which are dangerous, scientifically inaccurate, and unethical. Decades of AOUM sex education have contributed to incredibly high teen pregnancy rates in the US as well as record-high levels of STIs. Despite years of pushback from the medical community, sex educators, and human rights advocates, AOUM sex education is still heavily funded by the US government. So long as the US allows a majority of states to operate schools without proper sex education legislation, the nation is denying its citizens access to one of their most basic human rights.
In order to best prepare adolescents and teens for adulthood, a rights-based approach must be adopted to sex education; not just in the US, but around the world. This type of sex education includes an understanding of human rights, sexuality, gender equality, and empowerment. It allows students to understand sex and sexual health contextually dissecting cultural norms, power dynamics, healthy relationships, and sexual expression. By giving students diverse, scientifically accurate, comprehensive, accessible, and empowering information on sex and sexual health, it allows them to access their basic human rights and giving them the greatest chance to grow into healthy, happy, and empowered adults.
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