When should we teach sex ed to students?

Parents and child walking to school
Photo: freepik.com

A bill introduced in the Alaska state House would prevent sex ed topics from being discussed in the classroom until fourth grade. Another bill introduced in Florida would prevent schools from talking about sexual education topics until students are in middle school. 

Oregon, however, requires age-appropriate sex education for kindergarteners through 12th grade. Advocates of comprehensive sex ed say that research demonstrates the benefits of teaching children about sex education topics from a young age. 

Republican lawmakers and conservative organizations argue that educators should have a much more limited role in helping young students learn about reproduction and gender, and instead emphasize that parents should have control over what their children are learning about sexuality.

Chalkboard Review talked to advocates and a critic of comprehensive sex education, which is often taught in a K-12 program that emphasizes an inclusive, rights-based and whole-person approach to sex education.

Should students be taught sex ed at a young age?

Leslie Kantor is a professor and chair of the Urban-Global Public Health department at Rutgers School of Public Health. She says sex education for young kids is necessary.

“If we don’t talk about any of the qualities of healthy relationships until we’re trying to prevent dating violence in the 10th grade — we haven’t laid the groundwork,” Kantor said.

Kantor cited a study published last year by Eva S. Goldfarb and Lisa D. Lieberman analyzing 30 years of comprehensive sex education research. It considered other metrics of sex education curricula effectiveness, often centered on preventing teen pregnancy and HIV. 

“Outcomes include appreciation of sexual diversity, dating and intimate partner violence prevention, development of healthy relationships, prevention of child sex abuse, improved social/emotional learning, and increased media literacy,” the study found concerning comprehensive sexual education. 

“Substantial evidence supports sex education beginning in elementary school, that is scaffolded and of longer duration, as well as LGBTQ inclusive education across the school curriculum and a social justice approach to healthy sexuality,” the authors summarized. 

Alison Macklin, policy and advocacy director for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), told Chalkboard Review that many experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, say developing a healthy sexuality is a core developmental milestone for children and adolescents. 

Some argue for a more limited approach to sex ed

Along the same lines as Republican lawmakers in Florida and Alaska, some organizations and groups argue that discussions around sex education in schools should be limited.

Jeff Johnston, a policy analyst for Focus on the Family and a staff writer for its publication the Daily Citizen, told Chalkboard Review that his organization opposes teaching sex ed at a young age.

“A lot of this is being pushed really early on kids,” Johnston told Chalkboard Review. “And here’s the thing – if you start teaching kids about how to give consent to sexual activity, kids will do what you teach them.”

Johnston noted that statewide implementation requirements means teachers are talking about consent in the classroom as early as kindergarten or even transitional kindergarten in California.

“The sex education that Planned Parenthood and SIECUS promote is based on the idea that kids are sexual from birth and that they have a right to sexual pleasure,” Johnston said.

Johnston said Focus on the Family, which comes from a Christian perspective, encourages parents to start talking to their kids early about how people are made male and female in God’s image. As far as sex education goes, his organization focuses on mitigation.

“If sex ed is going to be taught in schools, we advocate for what’s called sexual risk avoidance,” Johnston said.

Johnston said researchers have found fault with Goldfarb’s and Lieberman’s study. Johnston cited a paper from the Institute for Research and Evaluation that rebutted Goldfarb’s and Lieberman’s research, saying the majority of studies analyzed were not of comprehensive sex education curricula. 

That rebuttal paper argued that most of the studies relied on by Goldman and Lieberman “do not meet recommended scientific standards for evidence of program effectiveness.”

Johnston said the Institute for Research and Evaluation has also challenged research claiming that certain comprehensive sex education curriculum are effective at reducing risky sexual behaviors.

“We want kids to wait until they’re grown up enough and responsible enough before they have sex,” Johnston said. “Ideally that would be in marriage. The ideal doesn’t always happen, but some of the things that comprehensive sex ed pushes actually pushes people toward early sexual activity.”

Macklin said claims that students who are taught sex education start to engage in sexual behavior are unfounded. 

“There’s a lot of fear that talking about sex encourages promiscuity or sexual activity,” Macklin said. “The research just does not support that.”

What does sex ed teaching look like for young students?

Sex ed for young students doesn’t look like the instruction most people received in high school health class, Kantor said.

She said that young kids encounter sex ed topics in their daily lives, for example when they get a new sibling or see someone who is pregnant or hear words in songs or see something in a video from an older sibling. 

“Kids have these questions. It isn’t some agenda of the left that is planting ideas, it’s real life,” Kantor said. 

She said that sex education at this age is age-appropriate and lays the groundwork for later years, just like the foundations students get in math class starting at a young age. But for sex ed in kindergarten of first grade, it’s answering questions like: “What does friendship look like?”

Kantor pointed out that there are very few people who interact with young kids who haven’t fielded questions like “Where do babies come from?” or “Can boys wear nail polish?”

Kantor said that parents should still be the primary educator on sex ed topics, but the question is really about the role of other responsible adults in continuing those conversations in a natural way.

Macklin agreed with Kantor that sex education for a 2-3 year old child is vastly different than lessons for high school students and adults.

“When I’m talking about sex education for a child, this is as basic as using medically-appropriate terminology for body parts,” Macklin said. 

According to Macklin, many experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, say that developing a healthy sexuality is a core developmental milestone for children and adolescents. 

Both Macklin and Kantor likened teaching sex ed to math, starting with addition and subtraction in early grades until students are eventually working on trigonometry. Sex education starts with similar foundational concepts and working up to more complex lessons in high school.

Practically, teaching this sort of foundation looks like reading the regular books that you’d read to a class of first-grade students and asking the class questions about friendship and conflict resolution.

“I want to teach that to a seven year old,” Kantor said. “Not address it the first time with a 17-year-old.” 

Can age-appropriate education prevent sexual abuse?

Emily Sallee, a professor in the department of counseling at the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education at the University of Montana, told Chalkboard Review that as a school counselor she has seen firsthand children suffering abuse who were unable to communicate clearly with adults.

“I’m thinking about kids I’ve worked with who have been sexually abused and had so little understanding of what was happening that they didn’t have the language to explain to me what they had experienced,” Sallee said. 

Sallee referenced one young girl who was the victim of abuse who was using a slang term that adults didn’t understand so they brushed it off. 

“Not talking about this is putting kids in a really dangerous place where they don’t have the language and knowledge to know how to navigate situations to keep themselves safe or get help,” Sallee added.

When asked about whether we should teach children about consent earlier in an effort to prevent sexual abuse, Johnston said the problem with teaching consent puts the onus on a child to prevent the abuse.

“It should be the duty and the responsibility of adults to protect children,” Johnston said. 

“We believe parents do have, generally, their children’s best interests at heart,” Johnston continued. “We know there are some bad apples, but in general, we believe that’s best and comprehensive sex ed has not shown to be effective.”

Talking about sex ed is important but politically fraught

Kantor said an important component of sex education is that it allows a responsible adult to communicate with young people about what they are hearing and seeing, a more difficult task now than 30 years ago when messages were limited to radio and television.

With smartphones and internet access everywhere, kids are much more likely to see pornography, Sallee said. The average age at which a child sees pornography is 12 years old, according to a survey conducted by Common Sense Media.

“If we’re not having these conversations, they’re going to go look for this content online and access things without having an adult to talk to about it,” Sallee said. 

She said trying to protect kids by avoiding sex education is well-intentioned but misinformed, so it’s being done in a way that’s causing harm.

But Johnston said that parents know their children best and know what’s best for their children. He argues that sex education should be coming from parents in the home.

Historically, some kind of sex education has enjoyed broad support by both Democrats and Republicans in both conservative and liberal states, Kantor said, based on research she has conducted. But now she said we’re seeing what used to be a consensus issue used by certain politicians to advance their careers.

Additionally, our society’s polarization and fractured information echo chambers makes talking about the nuances of sex education and its benefits more unlikely, she said.

“There are the people who are using these issues and then there are the people who get dragged into it,” Kantor said. “And then they are anxious and have questions but don’t really know where to go to get answers.”

Brendan Clarey
Brendan Clarey is K-12 editor at Chalkboard Review. Reach him at bclarey@franklinnews.org.

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