Sex education can be an uncomfortable experience, and it turns out that as a country, we’re pretty bad at teaching it. A December report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that less than half of U.S. high schools and only one-fifth of middle schools are meeting the CDC's recommendations for educating kids about sex.
The CDC offers 16 benchmarks that fall under four subject areas: HIV prevention, STD prevention, pregnancy prevention and information on sexuality. The topic least likely to be covered in sex education, according to the report, is how to get and use condoms -- one of the CDC's major recommendations.
This year's findings represent the norm for sex ed in America, according to Stephanie Zaza, director of adolescent and school health for the CDC. She said the findings are "mostly flat" compared to previous years and show “a lack of increase in the topics being taught in schools throughout the country.”
Because educational standards are up to the states, there's a big gap in what students in America are learning about sex.
In New Jersey, for example, 90 percent of high school students learn about all 16 topics. In Arizona, only 20 percent do. Other low-scoring states include Alaska and South Dakota, and other high-scoring states include New Hampshire and New York.
“It’s all over the map," said Valerie Sedivy, senior program manager at Healthy Teen Network. "Some states just haven’t updated their curriculum in a long time [and] some just don’t have the resources to teach all 16 benchmarks." Other states, according to experts, don’t have policymakers interested enough in the issue. Some states, largely in the Bible Belt, have legislatures resistant to anything but abstinence-only education.
SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The CDC report is concerning, according to sexual health experts, not only because more than half of U.S. teens aren't getting the information they need, but because even the CDC’s recommendations aren’t comprehensive.
“The CDC’s recommendations are a critical benchmark, but you have to understand that the CDC’s biggest concern is disease outbreak," said Jesseca Boyer, vice president of policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. "Sex education should [be] more than about the absence of disease -- it should be framed around how you can live a healthy sexual life. So it’s disturbing to see schools aren’t even hitting those most basic benchmarks."
A more holistic approach to sex education is difficult when there’s already a crunch to cover content in the core subjects within many public schools, said Janet Max, director of education and outreach at the Healthy Teen Network. But that doesn't mean it's impossible.
“Subjects are so siloed, but so many of topics surrounding sex education -- like building healthy relationships and sexual preference -- could be tied into the curriculum of an english or social sciences class,” suggested Max.
There's been some help from the Obama administration with that.
The Personal Responsibility Education Program, a little-known grant program in the federal health reform law, helps states fund comprehensive sex education that is medically accurate and age-appropriate. For example, in California's Oakland Unified School District -- which was deemed a high-risk area because of its high HIV rate -- the state integrated customized sex education into science and english classes.
There's been a recent uptick in state legislation related to sex ed. A recent report by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS) shows that 184 bills were introduced last year, and 18 were enacted. This shows a big increase from 2013, when there were 41 bills introduced and only four passed.
But SIECUS notes that not all of the bills represent progress. North Carolina, for example, no longer requires curriculum to be approved or taught by a sex education expert.
California, on the other hand, recently passed some of the most progressive laws on the issue. It not only became the first state to require all secondary schools to offer sexual health classes covering everything from STD prevention to sexual harrassment and sexual preference, it was also the first state to enact an affirmative consent law. As sexual assault cases have ticked up in colleges across the country, that means colleges and universities must redefine consent for sexual activity as hearing "yes" instead of "no."
“There isn’t a silver bullet to getting sex education right," said Boyer. "As discouraging as the CDC’s findings are, we need to realize that we are failing. Maybe now more people will be willing to take the issue up.”