Let’s talk about sex [education]. In a time where consent has to be explained to grown adults and getting tested still seems so dirty (please get tested; it’s so important), it’s obvious that people are growing up without all the information they need to be responsible about sex.
To understand a little better how the sex education system works in the US and why starting these conversations with kids at young ages is so important, we turned to Nicole Cushman, MPH, the Executive Director of Answer—a national organization committed to providing honest and accurate sex education resources. Cushman has 18 years of experience as an educator and trainer in sexual and reproductive health and has worked to strengthen sexuality education policies and programs across the U.S.
Kaitlin Willow: How are sex education and human development currently set up in schools? Who determines the course curriculum? Who, if anyone, oversees programs in different schools?
Nicole Cushman: It depends. What we have in the US is a patchwork system of laws and policies that regulate what gets taught or doesn’t get taught. Different states can set particular policies—some states mandate it, some regulate content requirements like abstinence, contraception, whether information has to be medically accurate. Even if there is a really strong state law in place, it doesn’t get down to the level of dictating the actual curriculum. State education departments may develop their own standards, while individual school districts are responsible for complying with state guidelines. There is no body to oversee what gets taught in private schools
KW: How common is it that schools teach abstinence-only sex ed—or forgo this education altogether?
NC: We don’t have really comprehensive data—district by district—on what is being taught. It’s more common for states to cover or stress abstinence than to cover contraception.
37 states require information on abstinence. 27 of those require that abstinence be stressed. 10 simply require that abstinence is covered. This doesn’t mean that a school can’t also provide info on contraception and STDs.
We do know that the vast majority of schools implement some form of pregnancy prevention or HIV/STD prevention education. We know a lot less about tone or tenor of the lesson. Is it a positive, affirming, holistic approach—or do they take a fear-based or shaming approach?
KW: How often do you see parents opt their kids out of these programs? What kind of consequences could that have?
NC: It’s pretty uncommon, but there isn’t really national data. In any given school or semester, there’s usually only a handful of kids (sometimes only one) that get opted out of sex ed.
What’s definitely of some concern is there are some states that have laws requiring proactive opt-in consent from parents, rather than just allowing an opt-out option. This puts an additional barrier to students receiving sex education.
KW: What do you think parents should do to better support their pubescent children?
NC: First and foremost, having open lines of communication with kids is so important from a really young age. Talk early and talk often to really normalize conversations about sex and sexuality.
You can start really young—with toddlers or elementary ages, by teaching proper names of body parts and answering honestly about gender and sexuality in an age-appropriate way. The truth is, for young kids, they want a simple explanation. “How did a baby get in a mom’s body?” or “Why do girls’ bodies look different than boys’ bodies?” Keep those lines of communication open, don’t judge or shame them for asking.
It’s also really important to take advantage of teachable moments with adolescent children. If you’re watching TV or movies together or listening to the radio, the sexual content, lyrics, scenes—they’re all opportunities to have a convo about what you saw on the screen. Try asking, “Do you think it’s healthy or not?” or “Is there anything you can relate to on the screen?”
Parents can also play an important role in getting involved in school-based sex education. If they’re supportive of sex ed, they should be reaching out to kids’ schools—finding out what’s being taught and not being taught. That way, the district knows that they’re supportive and want to see comprehensive sex ed taught in schools.
KW: What are the qualifications for one to become a sex education teacher?
NC: It’s handled on a state-by-state basis, but, generally, no. Most often, health or PE teachers are tasked with implementing sex ed. They don’t necessarily receive specialized training in sex ed.
There’s a real need out there to provide better training for teachers—no matter what discipline they come from. Providing up-to-date content knowledge and the skills to regulate the difficult conversations that come up in a sex ed classroom.
KW: In my experience, girls and boys were separated in like 5th grade to learn about our bodies, while the rest of my sex education experience was co-ed. Never, though, did we have opportunities to speak one-on-one about our questions and concerns.
Do you think educating kids on such sensitive topics in a group setting is as productive as it could be?
NC: First of all, when it comes to your experience of having kids separated by gender—that is pretty common. We recommend against it for a couple reasons:
1) It gives the impression that boys and girls are gonna receive different content and messages. Young people of all genders should get the same info about their bodies/reproduction.
2) It’s a way to help young people practice communication in a group setting that’s mixed genders. They’re in a safe space to get comfortable talking about these topics with people of different genders.
As far as one-on-one versus a group setting: both things are needed. Classroom education is a really important opportunity to get information across. It provides the safe space for students to get comfortable communicating with their peers in this process.
At the same time, people certainly benefit from individualized conversations with a parent, another trusted adult like a counselor, a family member, a healthcare provider. We need to help young people know when it’s important to seek out health services—like getting tested or getting birth control—for more individualized conversation with healthcare provider.
KW: I love what you’re doing with Amaze.org by taking the weird out of sex. Kids need to know that what they’re experiencing is normal and healthy and not weird. For example: I, personally, was traumatized in middle school when my teacher brought up the topic of discharge/vaginal secretions. To my recollection, it was only mentioned in relation to STDs. They actually gave us an opportunity to write down anonymous questions that day, and I asked, concerned about what I was seeing in my underwear: “Can you get an STD if you’ve never had sex?” The answer was no, but I never got an answer about what was happening to me—and I was way too embarrassed to ask anyone. Little did I know, my friends were probably having the same concerns—but this wasn’t something we talked about.
That in mind, what topics covered on Amaze, or topics in general, are usually not covered in sex ed that you think should be?
NC: There are two aspects: information that was left out and what information was emphasized and overemphasized. It’s important to note that most STDs don’t have symptoms at all. We can give the false impression that as long as you don’t have symptoms, then you’re fine.
When we focus on negative aspects and outcomes, we’re sending this fear-based message, rather than talking about some of the positive aspects of sexuality. Sex ed isn’t just about biology or just about risk.
There needs to be a focus on relationships, too. Young people experience their sexuality in the context of relationships (family, friendships, peers, potential dating relationships. It’s a new terrain of adolescence, so we should put lessons in that context—to teach things like, “How can I tell if someone likes me?” “How do I ask someone out?” or “What do I do if I get rejected?”
If we want to encourage young people to get tested, we should be helping young people role-play a conversation with a partner or a healthcare provider about asking about testing. This helps students get comfortable with the interpersonal dynamics of those relationships rather than focusing on the biology.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.