Why K-12 Comprehensive Sex Ed Matters

I was recently in a small group of parents and the conversation turned to elementary sex ed. One parent told a story about the only sex ed she ever had in school, which was a sex-segregated movie viewing where a mother ended up making pancakes shaped like a uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries to explain menstruation. Another parent shared that the only thing she remembered from elementary sex ed was that her teacher had also taught the guy who sang La Bamba. I gave a gigantic shrug – I didn’t receive any sex ed in elementary school. But maybe it didn’t really matter—neither of the story-tellers seemed to have taken anything from their experiences in elementary sex ed.

But do you know what we might have learned? We might have learned about menstruation in a way that didn’t rely on our parents talking with us (because many parents don’t). We might have learned the difference between the vagina and the urethra. We might have learned that people from a range of sexual orientations have families that are worthy and full of love. We might have learned how to navigate consent before consent was about sex.

My middle school years were during the AIDS crisis, so came with lots of information about biology and prevention. It was high quality. It taught me what condoms were and how to use them. It taught me that questions could be asked and answered in a school environment without shaming. It taught me that middle school was too late to start sex education.

I might also have learned how to get condoms and other forms of contraception. I might have learned what violence looks like in adolescent relationships before I saw it in person. I might have learned how to account for all kinds of body types. I might have learned that “No.” is a complete sentence. I might have learned that gender is not a binary, rigid concept.

And in high school? Well, by the time that I was in high school, sex education in my state (and increasingly around the country) was refocusing away from an HIV-crisis, comprehensive approach and towards an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach. I had no sex education in high school other that what I was able to glean from the (mostly pre-internet) media and the novels I devoured. Because you know who provides really low-quality sex education? Jane Austen and Emily Brontë. </sarcasm>

What might I have learned? A million things. But the one that I really, deeply regret is learning that sex is something that can be talked about openly. I needed a facilitated conversation among my peers about attraction, love, sexual choices, identity, pleasure, and more.

Obviously, I learned all of the things I might have learned in K-12 sex education in my own time. I would say that I am lucky in that missing these lessons was not actively harmful to my experiences. But not everyone has been so lucky—and I hope we all want more for our children than what we received.

We want our children to flourish. We want them to have the best information, support, and guidance when facing life’s biggest challenges. K-12 sex education offers our children exactly that. All of the things that they might learn are exactly what they need to learn in order to flourish in the highest ways possible.