For week 4, we’ll focus on how, in order to promote access to care, we must advocate for policies that increase investment in comprehensive, evidence-based, medically accurate, and age-appropriate sexual health education.

Comprehensive school-based sex education plays a critical role in the overall health and well-being of young people.

Sexual health education not only effectively prepares young people to have safer sex, prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancies, but it also helps them to make informed choices, practice affirmative consent, identify abusive behavior, and prevent dating violence.

There is also evidence that age-appropriate sexual health education that encompasses social-emotional skill building contributes to academic achievement, overall reduced risk-taking, and healthy relationships.

In fact, studies have shown that youth in programs focusing on social-emotional skills had higher social and emotional competencies; improved attitudes toward self, others, and school; more positive social behavior; fewer conduct problems; lower emotional distress; and improved academic performance.

Additionally, research indicates that comprehensive sex education programs can also reduce homophobia, as well as expand a student’s understanding of gender and gender norms.

No state standards

Here in New York State, however, sexual health education is not a required subject. Instead, the state leaves it up to each individual school district to not only determine what kind of information they provide to their students — but if they teach it at all.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, comprehensive sexuality education should be medically accurate, evidence-based and age-appropriate, and should include the benefits of delaying sexual intercourse — while also providing information about normal reproductive development, contraception to prevent unintended pregnancies, as well as barrier protection to prevent STIs.

Across New York, only 57 percent of schools teach topics such as communication and negotiation skills, goal setting and decision-making skills, the importance of using condoms consistently and correctly, and how to create and sustain healthy and respectful relationships.

Additionally, New York also does not require that sexual health education be medically accurate.

Young people & sex

The reality is that young people are already learning about sex from one another, TV/movies, online and elsewhere.

And the majority of teens will have had sex by the time they’ve graduated from high school — with more than 46 percent of sexually active high school students reporting they did not use a condom the last time they had sex.

Half of all new STIs reported each year are among youths between the ages of 15-24. Young people are also more likely to be unaware that they have contracted HIV as the highest percentage of undiagnosed HIV infection was among people aged 13–24.

Reducing the risks

Comprehensive sexual health education is critical to decreasing sexual risk, incidences of HIV and STIs, and teen pregnancy rates.

Teens who are provided comprehensive sexual health education are more likely to delay their first sexual intercourse, reduce their number of sex partners, decrease the number of times they have unprotected sex; and increase condom use.

This education can help students adopt lifelong attitudes and behaviors that support overall health and well-being, including behaviors that can reduce their risk for HIV and other STIs.

This approach to sex education is supported by major medical organizations, including the American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the Society for Adolescent Medicine.

Access for all

And yet, in addition to the lack of curriculum standards from the state, currently there are no federal programs dedicated to funding and expanding access to comprehensive sex education, which is considered the gold standard of sex education.

All young people should have access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information that is medically accurate, LGBTQ inclusive, and culturally and age-appropriate, so that they can make informed decisions about their sexual behavior, relationships and reproductive choices.

Sex is already part of many young people’s lives. And they deserve to receive the information they need to help inform their decision-making.