General Education

The State of Sexual Education in Schools in America

The State of Sexual Education in Schools in America
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Christine VanDonge February 8, 2019

Across the United States, sexual education offered to students enrolled in public schools varies wildly from state to state. This article outlines how you can find out what curriculum is offered in your state as well as describes your role as a parent in teaching about sexuality.

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The State of Sexual Education in Schools in America

Why do we need Sexual Education in Public Schools?

Across the United States, sexual education offered to students enrolled in public schools varies wildly from state to state. All states require some form of sexual education to students in public schools; however, the content of this education varies greatly. A survey conducted in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 47% of high school students in the United States have had sexual intercourse. Sexual activity during adolescence has been linked to an increased risk for sexually transmitted infections (STI) and unplanned pregnancy. There are two types of sexual education which may be offered to students; programs which stress abstinence and programs which are comprehensive. Education programs which stress abstinence encourage youth to delay sexual activity until marriage and often lack important information about human sexuality such as puberty, reproductive anatomy, and sexual health. In recent years, there has been a push to offer students comprehensive education programs (as opposed to programs which stress abstinence) as comprehensive education programs have been found to delay the onset of sexuality, reduce the number of sexual partners, and increase condom and contraceptive use (Kirbry, 2001). Additionally, there has been minimal evidence that programs which focuses heavily (or solely) on abstinence delay the onset of sexual activity (Mathematica, 2007). Some factors which have been linked with delayed onset include: peer relationships, views towards sex and abstinence, communication skills (with parents and partners), and knowledge of the potential consequences of sex. Importantly, youth who feel supported in their decision to abstain from sexual activity by their peers are more likely to abstain (Mathematica, 2007).

A Closer look at Sexual Education by State

Currently, only twenty-two states and the District of Columbia mandate sexual education. Similarly, thirty-three states and the District of Columbia mandate HIV education.* The Guttmacher Institute has assembled a guide which can help parents understand the general requirements within their state for sexual and HIV education. This guide can help parents gain an understanding of several important items:

  1. What type of education is mandated within their state (sexual education, HIV education, or both).
  2. The requirements of education when mandated (i.e. the education must be age appropriate, medically accurate, culturally appropriate).
  3. The role of parents in the education (i.e. if notification or consent is required and if parents can opt their children out). In addition, this guide can help parents understand the nature of the content of the sexual and/or HIV education their child is receiving (e.g. does the program teach about contraceptives or abstinence? Is the topic covered or stressed to students?).

What Can You Do as a Parent?

Although all states offer sexual education to students, in thirty-five states as well as the District of Columbia parents can choose to have their children not participate in sexual education (National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 2013). As a parent, you may struggle with the idea of your child learning about sexuality from someone other than yourself and/or your partner or co-parent. There are a few important points to consider.

  1. As a parent, you can enhance what your child is learning in school. As a parent it is important to be in tune with what your child is learning in school. Although you may regularly ask your child “What did you do in school today", and they might regularly respond “nothing", during the time in which your child is enrolled in a sexual education program it is particularly important to ask that magical question and seek out a meaningful response. This question can begin a dialogue about what your child has learned and help him or her further understand and explore what they are being taught.
  2. You can still talk about your personal values. The time when you are discussing what your child is learning in school can be prime-time to interject your family’s personal values around sexuality. Thus, if your hope as a parent is that your child does abstain until marriage, you can have conversations about how you feel, and why waiting till marriage is a core value for you and your family. Parents who do not want their children to receive their information about sexuality from school have an important role as sexual educators. There are many venues in which youth may learn about sexuality including peers and media outlets; therefore, it is important for parents to have an understanding about what children knows about sexuality and provide accurate information. Providing developmentally appropriate and accurate information can promote healthy decision making for youth (Krafchick & Biringen, 2003). Parents who do not wish to have their child participate in the programs offered at school should seek out programs or curriculum which can be used at home. While these programs can allow parents to explore their values, they also should include medically accurate and developmentally appropriate. Parents should consider attending workshops in their local community or consider learning a curriculum such as There’s No Place Like Home for Sex Education.

*Of the thirty-three states which mandate HIV education, thirteen do not mandate sexual education.


Kirby, D. (2001). Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Krafchick, J. & Biringen, Z. (2003). Parents as Sexuality Educators. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 14, 57-72. Trenholm, C., Devaney, B, Fortson, K., Quay, L., Wheeler, J, & Clark, M. (2007). Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs. Princeton: Mathematica Policy Research, 2007. Accessed from