Updated: Apr 21, 2021
70% of school districts still use an 'abstinence-plus' model? Teachers only get 17.2 hours of sex ed training? What is going on here?
Hi everyone! So a few weeks ago I began exploring what my home state of Massachusetts requires for sexual health education in public schools, and what I found as pretty shocking. Massachusetts is up there with Vermont, Oregon, and California as the “progressive” states. (I put “progressive” in quotation marks because the standard to which we are comparing these state’s policies and platforms is pretty low.) I was surprised to discover that not only does Massachusetts not require sex ed in piblic schools, but if sex ed is taught it must include a pro-abstinence aspect. In fact, 70% of school districts in MA still use an ‘abstinence-plus’ model for teaching sex ed, which means they focus specifically on abstinence, and might just include all that other stuff (i.e. actual sex education) if you’re lucky. That’s all well and good until we look at what sex ed in Massachusetts is not required to cover, which includes information on gender expression and identity, sexual orientation, and/or consent.
Not to completely disparage my home state, but I definitely just assumed we’d be doing better. And as I continued to dig into this stuff, I realized it’s not that surprising that we’re not doing better. Because Massachusetts does not require sexual health education it is completely up to each individual school district to decide if and how to implement sexual health education (cite). This leads to a disparity in sexual health knowledge and information between counties (cite). For instance, I’m from the South Coast of Massachusetts, and I know my friend who grew up in Western Mass probably had a completely different sexual health education than I did, even though we probably got the same information about stuff like trigonometry. Further, most health education teachers are never trained on pedagogy of sexuality education. In fact, there is an average of 17.2 hours allocated for U.S. teachers to teach sexuality education.
So what is missing from Massachusetts sexual health curriculums? It’s hard to pinpoint for sure, since each district might follow a different model, but there are some similarities across the state. For instance, we know sex ed in Massachusetts is still typically taught in a gender-segragated manner, which can alienate transgender, gender-nonconforming, and non-binary young people. We also know LGBTQIA+ sexual health is typically excluded from sexuality education standards. This means that the information is taught exclusively through a cis-gendered and heterosexual lense. For example, STI and STD prevention might focus only on penetrative or vaginal sex. And any education on healthy or unhealthy relationships might focus mainly on heterosexual relationships.
So how is it changing? Organizations like Future of Sex Education (FOSE), Advocates for Youth, Answer, and Sex Ed for Social Change (SIECUS) are making a difference. These organizations partnered to release a second edition of National Sex Education Standards (K-12). These standards include information on: Consent and Healthy Relationships, Anatomy and Physiology, Puberty and Adolescent Sexual Development, Gender Identity and Expression, Sexual Orientation and Identity, Sexual Health, Interpersonal Violence. In my next post, I’ll dive into this updated curriculum and break it down by grade level.
On a parting note, I want to hear from you. What do you remember being taught about sex and relationships in school? And what do you wish you had learned in sex ed? Let me know through this confidential survey: https://forms.gle/E4cjyBLb8QByjDbX6
Kate Bradford, T. J. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-policies-on-sex-education-in-schools.aspx
Massachusetts State Profile. (2020, July 02). Retrieved from https://siecus.org/state_profile/massachusetts-state-profile/
The Future of Sex Education. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://futureofsexed.org/