Pennsylvania is failing its students by not providing comprehensive sexuality education in the classroom. Sexual Health Month is the perfect time to advance legislation to fix that.
Our schools are not required to teach sexuality education generally. But schools that receive state funding are required to include instruction on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.
Any curriculum offered must stress abstinence but does not need to include information about sexual orientation, gender, consent, or other topics described in the K-12 National Sexuality Education Standards. There are not even requirements in Pennsylvania that sexuality education be medically accurate or age-appropriate.
The PA Coalition for Sexuality Education is working with a group of state lawmakers, including leaders State Reps. Brian Sims and Jessica Benham as lead sponsors of House Bill 1335 (regular session 2021-22), to advocate for requiring schools to provide medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education. The bill was referred to the Education Committee on May 5.
Pennsylvania is among a shrinking minority of states that do not require medically accurate and consent-focused sexuality education. As STI rates rise in the U.S., sexual and relationship violence become more widely discussed in public discourse, and more young people are asking to be prepared for adulthood by the adults they trust to teach them, it is essential that Pennsylvania political leadership start to meet this need.
Some of the core elements that this bill proposes would equip and prepare young people to make informed decisions about how they engage in relationships and take care of their well-being. This includes consent-focused, medically accurate, age-appropriate information on sexual health and relationships. Comprehensive sex education must contain — but is not limited to — anatomy, puberty, contraception, gender identity, sexual identity, decision-making and communication, sexual violence, STIs, and pregnancy.
Inclusive, accurate information empowers young people to make decisions that suit their lives and includes all young people, especially LGBTQ students and students of color who often face prejudice when pursuing relationships and providers to care for their health and well-being.
“Harvard researchers’ findings indicated that young people do not have as much casual sex as parents and educators assume.”
Many sex education programs solely focus on health outcomes of sex, like potential infection, leaving young people with gaps in knowledge about healthy relationships, violence prevention, and overall well-being.
This is due, in part, to the misconception about the prevalence of “hook-up culture.” Harvard’s Graduate School of Education conducted a study through their Making Caring Common project surveying over 3,000 young people. Their findings indicated that young people do not have as much casual sex as parents and educators assume. Not only is the concern over casual sex misunderstood; young people also yearn for more information about how to create and sustain healthy romantic relationships. The study also found that gender-based violence and sexual harassment were not being appropriately prioritized by parents, educators, or other trusted adults.
The proposed bill for Pennsylvania sets expectations that curriculum includes comprehensive, inclusive, and affirming programming that is trauma-informed to avoid retraumatizing students who may have already experienced gender-based or sexual violence.
Any lesson plans for use in schools will be developed or selected locally in a school system, so long as they fit within appropriate standards for the respective grade level and the topics described in the proposed bill. For instance, elementary education will focus on the individual student and their close relationships, while middle and high school curriculum will include the student, their close relationships, as well as external influential factors such as the media and social expectations. Developing sex education standards within this framework allows students to comprehend the information on a level that works for them.
Young residents of Pennsylvania can benefit from education that goes beyond pregnancy and STI prevention. Comprehensive sex education will provide Pennsylvanian adolescents with knowledge about how to process media, communicate with partners, and recognize and prevent intimate partner violence. LGBTQ-inclusive sex education will also affirm students who identify as such and allow students who are allies to support sexual diversity.
By telling your legislators you support the work of the PA Coalition for Sexuality Education and House Bill 1335, Pennsylvania residents can make an impact on the well-being of young people. Comprehensive sex education has measurable benefits that last beyond adolescence.
It not only prepares them for their immediate lives as young people but prepares them to grow into adulthood with the information they need to be healthy — and parent their own children or support other young people around their sexual health and well-being.
Justin Sitron is associate dean of Widener University’s College of Health and Human Services and director of the Interdisciplinary Sexuality Research Collaborative. Amanda Bule is a Widener University graduate student in the human sexuality and public administration dual degree program.