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Six Solutions to Our Failing Sex-Ed System

Traditional, school-based sex ed is not meeting students’ needs — but some educators have figured out ways to operate outside the red tape.

By Stephanie Auteri


(Photo: Keith Ellwood/Flickr)

In a predictable bit of news, the results of a study released this past September show that students consider most sex-education programs to be out-of-touch, outdated, and lacking in the information that might actually prove useful to them. Among the deficiencies reported by teenagers were a focus on fear-based lesson plans, curricula that alienate LGBTQ+ students, instructors untrained in actually providing useful sex ed, and a failure to acknowledge that some young people are — spoiler alert — sexually active.

When it comes down to it, though, these inadequacies do not stem from lack of trying on the part of certified sexuality educators. There are disparities in curricula, and in resources: Federal funding for sex education flows to both abstinence-only and evidence-based approaches, and decisions about curricula are made on a state-by-state — and district-by-district — basis. There are still only 13 states that require sex education to be “medically accurate.”

In fact, in the past year, 23 bills were introduced with the intention of restricting the quality of sex ed. Such restrictions included moves to limit access to information about reproductive health options, and to exclude qualified sexuality educators from schools based upon their affiliation with abortion providers.

While the majority of these bills failed to advance, in many cases, educators continue to be hamstrung by red tape. And they worry that — in the wake of the most recent presidential election — their jobs will only become more difficult. What is an enterprising, conscientious sex educator to do?

Last month, I attended the National Sex Ed Conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where I saw sexuality educator Francisco Ramirez present a keynote on “hacking” sexual health. During his talk, Ramirez spoke about how educators might possibly shake things up, in some cases taking sex ed outside the classroom in order to reach those who need it most. Happily, many educators are already doing this, systematically toppling many of the barriers that have long stood in their way. Throughout the conference, I was reminded of the many forms such resourcefulness can take. Here are the six most important fixes currently happening in American sex ed.

1. Where Can Students Get the Answers They Crave Without Fear of Embarrassment or Other Negative Repercussions? These Days: Their Phones

Sex educators often employ anonymous question boxes in their classrooms, but the new-media generation is taking this idea of anonymity to the place where it thrives best: social media. I recently wrote about a variety of new social-media applications, YouTube series, and other online resources that allow teens to seek out accurate sexuality information anonymously. Since then, it seems that not a day goes by where I don’t hear about a new sex-ed app.

What’s important to remember about any of these sex-ed hacks is that just because a program works in one place, that doesn’t mean it will work in every community.

One of the more recent ones to catch my eye is Capptivation’s Reach Out, an app that provides sexual assault survivor resources to college-age students. According to Capptivation, a similar app for high schoolers is on its way. And the Healthy Teen Network—a membership-based advocacy organization — is in the process of developing two phone apps, one for high school-aged teens, and one for people who are older. They were inspired to do so after receiving an RFP (a request for proposal—a document from an agency soliciting a proposal for a specific commodity or service) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Alongside the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC has been looking to fund the development of a mobile app that would support teen pregnancy prevention.

This push for sex-ed apps is not without precedent. A 2016 study on mobile phone-based interventions for smoking cessation showed that mobile interventions can lead to positive behavioral changes. And additional research — including a 2016 paper published in BMC Public Health — has shown that sexual-health apps remove certain barriers youth often feel in seeking out sexual-health services: namely, embarrassment. HTN is in the midst of conducting its own randomized control trials in order to determine the efficacy of its apps.

2. How Can Students Take a Leadership Role in Their Own Sex Education? Through Peer-Led Sex Ed

A recent review of 15 peer-led sexual-health education programs shows that peer-to-peer sex ed can be successful at improving teens’ knowledge and attitude about sexual health — which is good news, considering that many teens don’t think adults are doing the best job. And just as with social-media apps, new peer-to-peer training programs are popping up all around the country. Teen PEP, which operates in both New Jersey and North Carolina, is one such program that trains teens to provide sex ed to their peers at school. Another example is the team out of Planned Parenthood of North, Central, and South New Jersey, which leads an annual Teen Conference that students travel to on a one-day field trip.

In Austin, Texas, the Peer 2 Peer Project trains teens to teach both on school grounds and at other locations within their communities, going so far as to pay them for their efforts. In Baltimore, Maryland, the Healthy Teen Network and its subsidiary, the Healthy Teen Leadership Alliance, also empower teens to influence the field of sexual health. These are just a handful of programs among many that are handing the reins over to teens. It can be difficult to keep track of all the peer-led programs popping up around the country, but Advocates for Youth — an advocacy organization with its focus on adolescent sexual health — has gathered the results of numerous studies on the impact of peer education. These studies show how peer education reduces risky sexual behaviors and empowers teens, who seem to find their peers to be more credible than adult educators.

3. How Can Educators Reach Underserved Populations That Are Being Missed by Traditional School Systems? Take Sex Ed on the Road

Programs such as Power Through Choices and the Grrrls Project bring sex education to youth in the foster-care system and in juvenile detention centers. Other curriculum providers are adapting curricula to be friendlier to and more inclusive of marginalized populations, such as the LGBTQ+ community, special needs populations, and people of color.

4. How Can Educators Make Sure Kids’ Concerns Aren’t Falling Through the Cracks, and That Parents Aren’t Being Left Out of Their Children’s Education? Train Parents to Be Approachable Adults and Mentors

The relationship between sexuality educators and parents can often seem adversarial when, ideally, it should be collaborative. Many parents fear, however, that they’re unprepared to educate their children about sexuality. Training courses such as AccessMatters’ AskableAdults Matter give adults the tools with which to become sexual-health mentors to youth. Other programs target parents in particular, enabling them to communicate effectively with the kids around a topic that may often cause both sides to get flustered.

5. How Can Educators Build Trust Among Cultural and Faith Communities That Are Different From Their Own? Self-Education and a Willingness to Engage With People on Their Own Terms

Adequate cultural competency can be difficult to achieve when educators are serving diverse populations. For this reason, it’s crucial for educators to find common ground among the communities where they work, and to consult with those who have unique insight within those populations. For the latter, there are some programs that provide consulting services to educators, such as HEART Women & Girls, which collaborates with academic research institutions to better understand the sexual and reproductive health needs of Muslim communities, and which offers leadership and professional development trainings to those serving those communities. While their reach was small just a few years ago, they’ve since expanded to offer workshops and trainings across the country and, in 2016, reached over 1,500 students and professionals via community workshops, campus workshops, professional development sessions, and conference presentations that covered both sexual health and sexual violence.

6. How Can Educators Become More Successful in Getting Sex Ed to Those Who Need It Most? By Raising Awareness

The best way to get buy-in from parents, school administrators, and other community members when trying to implement a sex-ed program is to come armed with research and statistics that show the impact that sexuality education can have within the community. It can be tough to get funding for such research, but thanks to the research that has been conducted — such as this 2014 study showing that abstinence-based sex ed has been ineffective in preventing teen pregnancy, and may actually contribute to higher rates of teen pregnancy — more and more federal funding has been funneled toward evidence-based sex ed over the years, and school districts are following suit.

And consciousness raising can come in other forms as well—such as this flash mob in Vietnam, and this Planned Parenthood promotional video set to the tune of “Hotline Bling,” and, for that matter, Francisco Ramirez’s #FreeSexAdvice sessions around New York City. ONE Condoms, a company that frequently engages in public-health awareness campaigns, holds an annual condom wrapper design contest in order to encourage conversations about condoms and sexual health. Winners can send a donation of condoms to a health organization of their choice, and the company says an average of 200,000 condoms are donated each year. Such campaigns may not bring sex ed into schools, but they do get people talking.

What’s important to remember about any of these sex-ed hacks is that just because a program works in one place, that doesn’t mean it will work in every community. Savvy educators know that they have to consider where they’re providing sex ed, when, and to whom. Luckily, many educators are getting the job done and, in addition to the work they do in service of traditional, school-based education, they’re finding alternative ways to teach that don’t get them entangled in all that red tape.