The Importance of Comprehensive Sexual Education

by Nathan Baumgartner

Opinion Contributor

Ah, sex ed. For me, the inaugural high school experience was not very bad, with my health teacher being very personable and realistic. But take a look on the cherished institution that is Netflix, and watch movies and shows like Mean Girls or Parks and Recreation. Need it be an inexperienced physical education coach or a group of abstinence-only advocates impeding Leslie Knope’s desires of sexual-education programs for senior citizens unknowingly spreading sexually-transmitted diseases, the message is clear: acting like sex does not happen, or completely exaggerating it does not work. Unfortunately, the obstacles faced by Leslie Knope do indeed exist: for many schools, it apparently “makes sense” to act like sex does not happen.

Earlier this week, a Reddit user discussed ways to have “the talk.” Using my experience as an example, this can be one of the most intense conversations with parents if they make the leap of faith to talk about sex. In my Catholic upbringing, this talk simply did not happen. It is interesting to point out that he is the father of a fifteen-year-old daughter and a thirteen-year-old son, and has already begun having his own interesting spin of “the talk” with his children. His main “tenets” of sexual activity seem simple: in the eyes of the Reddit user, his children are not ready to engage in sexual activity until they are “mature enough to talk about (sex)” and develop full trust in their partners, in an effort to develop trust and affection over infatuation and lust. Despite some people calling his methods “weird” and “out-of-sync with family values,” it turns out that this message is not actually that uncommon at all. In fact, the notion of being relatively open about sexual activity, processes, etc. is the law in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Ineke van der Vlugt, in an interview with PBS NewsHour, discussed the typical Dutch process of sexual education. Tackling misconceptions about the Dutch system, van der Vlugt states, “People often think we are starting right away to talk about sexual intercourse (with kindergartners). Sexuality is so much more than that. It’s also about self-image, developing your own identity, gender roles, and it’s about learning to express yourself, your wishes and your boundaries.”

The Dutch system begins with relatively abstract concepts. Ineke van der Vlugt recollected a visit to a Dutch kindergarten in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the capital of the Dutch province of North Brabant located towards the southern part of the country. In an article written by Jon Levine on 2 June 2015, Levine chronicles the Dutch system through writing, “In the beginning, sex goes unmentioned, but things steadily progress as students get older. By age seven, students are expected to be able to know and name male and female genitalia, and by 11, they can navigate a broad range of discussions ranging from unwanted sexual advances to how to handle erections.” By many indicators, this system of sexual education is through and, consequently, comprehensive. According to indicators discussed by Greg Toppo in a USAToday article on 6 October 2015, “Modern-day American teenagers are as connected — to the greater world and to each other — as any generation in history. But take a look at their sexual health and you’ll start to wonder exactly how they’re benefiting from all of those connections. First the good news: Recent statistics from the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that teen pregnancy rates have dropped. In 2013, they were at a record low of 26.5 per 1,000 women, down 10 percent from 2012. But the CDC also notes that the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is substantially higher than in other industrialized nations. And the picture gets bleaker: of the 34 percent of teens who said they’d had sex in the previous three months, about four in 10 said they didn’t use a condom in their last encounter.”

This phenomenon of abstinence-only education does not work the way proponents of it make it seem, and information provided by Mr. Toppo makes a clear example of it. According to a report issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, “Family life or sex education in the public schools, which traditionally has consisted largely of providing factual information at the secondary school level, is the most general or pervasive approach to preventing pregnancy among adolescents….Adolescents who begin having sexual intercourse need to understand the importance of using an effective contraceptive every time they have sex. This requires convincing sexually active teens who have never used contraception to do so. In addition, sexually active teens who sometimes use contraceptives need to use them more consistently (every time they have sex) and use them correctly.” Sometimes, it does not seem that this happens within the United States, a clear correlation being made between lower incomes and higher teenage pregnancy rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Northeast region of the United States has one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates overall and utilizes a more comprehensive sexual education program in public schools as compared to its Southeastern and Midwestern counterparts. This movement towards comprehensive sexual education in the Northeast and Pacific coasts has actually led to decreased abortion rates across the country, the ratio of 219 abortions per one-thousand live births in 2011 the lowest ratio since 1972. But again, abortions in the United States happen at a much frequent rate than is the case in many Western European countries, which, interestingly enough, have legalized abortion and are covered by government-sponsored healthcare systems.

Let’s be realistic, here. There are people who are going to have sex, and there are people who aren’t going to have sex. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, in the words of Bruce Nolan. Ignoring something like sex just drives people to become more secretive about it. People choose to “hook up” in unused stairwells and consequently engage in very risky activity. With a lack of openness about sex, sexual activity becomes looked upon as somewhat of a “bad boy” behavior tactic. Parties and sex become synonymous, and people lack the empowerment to talk with people about their behaviors. The Kingdom of the Netherlands does not condone or condemn sexual activity. Its mission in sexual education is clear: to inform. Yes, topics surrounding contraception and family planning are going to come about. Today, it’s extremely difficult (if not, impossible) to structure a well-balanced conversation about sexual education without talking about child rearing, or taking measures to prevent it, even. The world is multifaceted, and discarding one facet of it can be dangerous. Multiple religions exist, each with their own perspectives of sexual education. Multiple sexual orientations exist. Multiple gender identities exist. The list goes on and on, but a comprehensive sexual education program can begin to bring these perspectives together.



  1. I home educated my kids and what we did is address sexuality the same way we addressed learning to read, mathematics, learning to ride a bicycle etc. We taught it progressively. There wasn’t one big “talk” there were thousands of little ones. The only problem I have with a comprehensive sex education program in our public schools is that teachers will ALWAYS put their own spin on it. I moved from school to school a lot as a child and every teacher who taught me about sexuality had a different take on it. That was ok for me because I got to hear them all, but for the poor kid who had to sit in a classroom with a teacher pushing only one agenda it was not a good thing.

    If we do a mandatory comprehensive sexual education system I think it would need to be a video program of some kind with no teacher involvement at all. Even then, we would need to simply stick to the pure, scientifically provable facts and leave the moral issues out of it.

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