An introduction to American sex education

The uniform perception of sex education in the United States typically involves the clichéd imagery of awkward, pimply teens and pre-teens spending their class time practicing putting condoms on bananas. [1] However, American education standards regarding sexual health and wellness are anything but uniform.

While initiatives like the Common Core have attempted to standardize language arts and mathmatics instruction for American students in any state, no such attention has been paid to sex education. The lack of national standards for sex education can result in dramatically different outcomes for students, depending on their state, school district, or curriculum. [2] These inconsistencies have a lasting impact on American youth, and result in detrimental long-term personal and public health effects. [3] If we are to improve upon the current patchwork of differing sex education standards that currently exists in America, it is important that we understand the current requirements for the subject on a state-by-state basis.

The varying laws around sex education

Currently, sex education—unlike English or mathematics—has no centralized standards that define the topics that schools must cover, or the learning outcomes that students must exhibit in order to be considered proficient. The scope and teaching methodologies surrounding the topic of sexual health and wellness has largely been left to the determination of individual states, and in some states is left to the individual districts. [2]

A note: Some states have begun the process of reforming their laws pertaining to sexual health and wellness—particularly as it relates to consent—but the following data is from April 1, 2019. Any updates made after this date are not reflected here.

Hover over the states to view their names. If the state does not fit into the categories, extra information is provided.

The lack of unity in sex education can have lasting impacts on children. The varying information, definitions, and amounts of shame imparted on children during these courses—if these courses are offered at all—can contribute towards a multitude of negative side effects. The repression of sexual and gender identity expression, the inability to comfortably negotiate sexual encounters, and the misinformation that leads to positive pregnancy and STI test results are all potential outcomes of a patchwork of varying state and local standards. [4][5].

Demonstrating the consequences of this educational system

To get a better understanding of the individual impact these aforementioned factors have had on the thoughts and experiences of children nationwide, here are some selected quotes from conversations with individuals ranging from the ages of 19 to 32. These people are young enough to have taken sexual education classes in recent memory, but old enough to be able to reflect on how it has impacted them. They include current students graduating from high school, recent graduates of high school and college, educators, mental health professionals and others. Those interviewed are people who represent a diversity of geographic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. They share their experiences, reflecting on how sexual education has impacted their sexual decisions and identities before, during, and after college.

The experiences of these individuals differ because of the laws in their states, and whether or not others became involved with their sexual health and wellness education (such as parents, siblings, friends, or social media personalities). It’s understandable that studies have had a hard time understanding the impact of sex education in the United States as a whole. [6]

In light of this patchwork of different approaches to sex education in secondary schools, it becomes clear why students in colleges and universities are witnessing and experiencing an “epidemic” of sexual assault. [7][8] On campus, students from all districts, states, and countries melt together without parental guidance and with the influence of substances such as alcohol and drugs. The understanding of the topics that would be covered in a comprehensive sex education course vary widely from person to person, leading to different interpretations and implementations of vital concepts like consent.

Varying perceptions of sexual health and wellness

TIn 2015, the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a study on the attitudes of college-aged students towards sexual assault and consent. [9] This survey asked college students from varying schools and locations within the US to say which instances they felt were, or were not, sexual assault and consent.

The result of the mixed messaging given to children has proven to be confusing at its best, and ineffective at its worst.

Improving American sex education

There are multiple levels at which change can occur:

At home

Education regarding consent and healthy relationships can start at any age. National surveys show that only 16% of high school-aged students reported having ever discussed sexual assault, either in their schools or their homes. [11] Most instead get their education on these topics from other sources of media. Having these conversations in the home can clear up misinformation that comes from an inadequate sex education class at school, or can help to positivly reinforce lessons taught in better, more comprehensive programs.

At school

Positive changes for sex education need to occur within the schools responsible for teaching the subject. Because of the wide variety in quality from district to district, school to school and teacher to teacher, it is necessary to establish that students are receiving—at the minimum—their mandated education in the subject. Even in states or districts where certain material is mandated, it does not ensure that the topic is covered. Insights into how well schools are doing to cover sex education topics could be gleaned from a variety of sources, including current students, teachers, program supervisors, administrators and school board members.

At the capitol

Finally, change must occur in the government at the federal, state and local levels. [10] By reaching out to local and state representatives, constituents can stress the importance of the material that should be covered in school, and why it is necessary for these topics to be taught. Having laws in place that require content to be covered can help to protect teachers from parental litigation, and would help to ensure that schools are doing their due diligence in providing sex education for their students.

Implementing change in American homes, schools and governments could help to prevent much of the current confusion, repression, and pain caused by the negligent omission of sex education from classrooms.

"Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family." —Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations and Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

This is a thesis project created by Anna Walant for her Masters of Professional Studies in Digital Media, with a concentration in usability and development, from Northeastern University. More of her work can be found on her website

Disclaimer: Anna researched, wrote, designed, and programmed this thesis on her own, with the support of her thesis advisor (Aarthy Kannan Adityan), academic director (Cynthia Baron), and some very wonderful loved ones and friends. Sources for the narrative and data are cited below, but sources for the code are in the respective files found on her github If you happen to find an error in the representation of the data, or you have questions, please reach out to her! walant.a AT husky DOT neu DOT edu

  • [1] Wadler, J. (2013, August 14). Sex Ed, 1964. The New York Times. Retrieved from: Link
  • [2] Sex and HIV Education. (2016, March 14). Retrieved from Guttmacher Institute website: Link
  • [3] Nursing@USC Staff. (2017, September 18). America’s Sex Education: How We Are Failing Our Students. Retrieved from: Link
  • [4] Personal communications conducted via text, meetings, and FaceTime. March 2019–May 2019.
  • [5] Orenstein, P. (2017). Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. HarperCollins. Bought from: Link
  • [6] Santelli, J. S., Grilo, S. A., Choo, T.-H., Diaz, G., Walsh, K., Wall, M., … Mellins, C. A. (2018). Does sex education before college protect students from sexual assault in college? PloS One, 13(11), e0205951. Retrieved from: Link
  • [7] Jacobs, T. (2015, May 20). Female College Freshmen at High Risk of Rape - Pacific Standard. Retrieved from Pacific Standard website: Link
  • [8] Campus Sexual Violence: Statistics | RAINN. (n.d.). Retrieved from: Link
  • [9] Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Survey of College Students on Sexual Assault. (n.d.). Retrieved from Washington Post website: Link
  • [10] 27_lets-talk-tv-parents-checklist_d12.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from: Link
  • [11] Raphael, D. A. (2015). The Effect of Sexual Education on Sexual Assault Prevention. Retrieved from WomenNC website: Link
  • For more information about about sex education in the United States, the books "Girls and Sex" by Peggy Orenstein, and "Too Hot to Handle" by Jonathan Zimmerman are excellent resources. Orenstein's book gives an excellent look into the lives of teenaged girls and young women and how culture and education has impacted their experiences, good and bad. Zimmerman's book provdes a history of sex education around the world and helped me understand that perhaps our European educational role models aren't excellent role models afterall.