For many, "sex" is a four-letter word. Many schools are hesitant to raise the subject out of personal embarrassment and concern for the reactions of parents and community members. An increasing body of evidence, however, demonstrates that their reluctance is detrimental to the health of American teenagers.
The statistics are not encouraging. An estimated 66 percent of American teenagers are sexually active by their senior year of high school. Sixty-five percent of all sexually transmitted diseases occur in people under 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Perhaps most ominously, one in four new HIV infections occurs in Americans younger than 22 years of age. No federal law requires that schools teach sex education; as a result, only 18 states and the District of Columbia mandate that schools teach students about sex.
There's a twofold problem with this scattered approach. Schools in Maine are not required to provide any sexual education. The same applies to a host of other states, including North Dakota, Idaho, Massachusetts, Nebraska and California. Meanwhile, several states such as Utah, New Mexico, Georgia, South Carolina, Minnesota, and Vermont mandate sexual education, but legislate extensive exceptions and provisions, rendering the laws ineffective.
All states need to make efforts to educate their students about the inherit dangers of any sexual activity. The social and economic costs of teenage pregnancy and STD infections far outweigh any economic cost of the programs applied in middle and high school. Those states that have limited sex education requirements need to expand such programs for the same reason.
Equally problematic is the focus on the sexual dimension of the problem. It's intellectual laziness to assume all sexual education revolves around sex. Students need to know how their bodies work, what is involved in becoming pregnant and how to prevent it, as well as the dangers of unprotected sex. But sex is more than just a lesson in strict biology or physiology. The approach needs to be multi-faceted, not just to lessen the risks of sexual activity but also to address its foundational causes.
A strong component of this education should focus on why many teenagers engage in risky or promiscuous activity. Boys who have sex with multiple partners might do so because they face pressure to "score." A girl might feel the only way to get attention is to "put out." Frequently, the impulses that lead to self-destructive behavior are rooted in low self-esteem or difficult home lives. If the root causes are not effectively treated, then no amount of education about condoms or abstinence programs will help.
Additionally, in order to be effective and recognize children's innocence as well as their increasing lack thereof, sexual education needs to be targeted at the appropriate audience. Asking a 10-year-old to slip a condom on a banana is too much for a mere child. Students nearing high school have matured enough physically and emotionally to deal with issues about their bodies, and should be educated differently than those still finishing childhood.
While the federal government contributes $250 million for abstinence-based programs, it does not require any form of sexual education from the states. To imagine a strict, uniform policy meant to cover all states, from the most liberal to the most conservative, is difficult at best. But loose mandates, applied with the enticement of federal education dollars, can ensure a basic level of sexual understanding among American teenagers.
A healthy lifestyle requires physical, mental and sexual health. The AIDS epidemic and high teenage pregnancy rates are public health problems, not merely individual or private concerns. As such, state and local governments and educational boards must publicly address the problem throughout education. As we have often seen, the price of ignorance is much greater than the price of education.