Comprehensive sexuality education is a right. Many people would argue that sex ed is important, but what is comprehensive sexuality and why is it a human right? Let’s break it down.
Reproductive justice is an intersectional framework for all things involving reproduction and sexuality. That is why the comprehensive nature of sexuality education is essential. This can either mean that people receiving the education can cover a broad spectrum of sexuality in an extended period of time or it can mean covering the most relevant and important topics for a specific community. The most crucial point is that information is accurate, gender-inclusive, culturally competent, and covers topics in an age-appropriate manner. Comprehensive sexuality education is often the proposed alternative of abstinence-only sex education, which is exactly what it sounds like. These programs attempt to delay sexual activity in teens by stressing that abstinence is the only completely effective way to prevent pregnancy and STIs. Abstinence-only education excludes any information on contraceptive methods and often leaves out many other aspects of sexuality.
The shorthand many people use for this topic is “sex ed,” including people who work in sexual health and reproductive justice. Who can blame them? “Comprehensive sexuality education” is a mouthful. However, distinguishing “sex education” and “sexuality education” clarifies that these efforts are not simply to teach people about sexual intercourse or even just safe sex. It is about teaching people how to lead healthy lives, have healthy relationships, and understand physiology – yes, even outside of the bedroom. It is absolutely necessary to educate individuals about puberty, condom use, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, physiology, and reproduction. However, comprehensive sexuality education goes further to encompass personal safety, decision making, relationships, and consent from an early age. This is part of the intersectional nature of the issue. Not only has comprehensive sexuality education proved to be the most effective education strategy in preventing unwanted pregnancy and STIs, it also combats issues such as sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault.
It is often said that education is a lifelong journey, and the same is true with sexuality education. While it may sound bizarre at first, sexuality education can (and should) begin as soon as a child becomes aware of their body. The National Sexuality Education Standards state that by the end of the 2nd grade, students should be able to use the anatomically correct words for body parts as well as explain that all people, including children, have the right to tell others not to touch their body without consent.¹ This gives children a foundation to build upon throughout their adolescence – as they experience puberty, changing relationships, and eventually sexual experiences. By high school, it should be expected that students understand the human sexual response cycle, describe the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, have an understanding of various methods of contraception (including abstinence and condoms), and define STDs, including HIV, and how they are and are not contracted.
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, first drafted in 1948, every human has a right to education, sexual freedom, and reproductive freedom.² We are the product of reproduction and most of us will have sexual relations in our lifetime. Sexual health fundamentally impacts all of us and understanding it empowers us. However, we are currently failing at providing adequate education to ensure that healthy sexual lives are possible for our citizens. The combination of the U.S.’s hypersexualized pop-culture and the lack of sexuality education at home and in schools is problematic and dangerous. We continue to struggle with an unintended pregnancy, STIs, and sexual assault more than other developed countries. Within the U.S., marginalized communities are disproportionately denied sexual rights. We can no longer accept this blatant disregard of our sexual nature, health, and wellbeing. Understanding one of our most basic human functions and how it ties into our lives, our relationships, and our culture is not only essential to our health and prosperity, but is a basic human right.