Sex may be as old as time, but sex education looks remarkably different than it did a few decades ago. Girls and boys used to sit in separate rooms to learn how bodies worked and babies were made. Now, many sex ed programs venture beyond basic anatomy and biology (and condoms on bananas), to help young people understand healthy sexuality, from gender identity to bodily autonomy.
Backed by the momentum of #MeToo — which exposed the prevalence of sexual violence — many sex educators say programs should begin earlier and cover more emotional, intellectual and social elements of sexual health.
Chitra Panjabi, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), said #MeToo has lit a "spark."
"The national conversation is certainly having a significant impact on policy and that's a really good thing," Panjabi said, noting a slew of bills related to sex education have been introduced at state levels. "Now whether or not these are eventually going to get passed is a different story."
The State of Sex Ed There is no universal standard for sex ed in the U.S. Less than half of states mandate sex education, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that advances sexual and reproductive health and rights.
President Trump's 2019 budget allocates $75 million for abstinence-only programs. Comprehensive sex ed, defined as "age-appropriate, medically-accurate information on a broad set of topics related to sexuality," has no dedicated federal funding stream, according to SIECUS.
SIECUS' 2017 evaluation of sex ed programs across the country found:
A 2017 review of abstinence-only programs in the Journal of Adolescent Health called them "scientifically and ethically problematic." Authors of the review — 13 experts in adolescent sexuality research — argued "young people need access to accurate and comprehensive sexual health information to protect their health and lives."
But supporters of abstinence-only education disagree.
"The real issue here is what values are being taught," said Robert Rector, who wrote a 2010 report for the Heritage Foundation on the benefits of abstinence-only education. Abstinence programs "sincerely try to get teenagers to try to delay sexual activity;" comprehensive sex ed programs don't, Rector said. "A lot of them will simply have a sentence or two that's thrown into a safe-sex curriculum ... and other than that the entire curriculum is how to have a good time on Saturday night and avoid getting an STD."
Abstinence education is now sometimes referred to as Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA). Mary Anne Mosack, executive director of Ascend, an SRA organization, says it's about "eliminating rather than merely reducing risk."
When To Begin Experts say whatever your family values, conversations about sexuality should start early. Panjabi said sex education should begin in kindergarten. At that age, it may include children learning how to say no to being touched, or that every living thing reproduces. For a high schooler, it may be talking about what actions to take when a partner isn't respecting boundaries.
"There’s a whole scaffolding that needs to take place for kids to actually understand how consent is supposed to work," said Shafia Zaloom, a health educator at the Urban School in San Francisco, a private high school.
Delaying sex education doesn't mean kids aren't learning about sex. It just means they're learning about it from other places. From sexy Halloween costumes to Internet pornography, kids are bombarded with implicit and explicit messages about sexual objectification and behavior.
"From a very early age, if you’re not talking to your kid about sex, you’re the only one not talking to your kid about sex," Zaloom said.
Regan Pritzker, 46, of San Francisco began talking to her three kids — sons ages 16 and 13, and an 18-year-old daughter — about sexuality well before adolescence. But as they became more oriented around peers and teachers, it was clear she wasn't the only voice in the room. To make her conversations productive, she focuses on values.
"It's our family value that you’re always respectful of your partner," Pritzker said. When talking about hookup culture, for example, she's said, "I get just having a physical encounter, but it is our family value to be really respectful and careful if you’re having intimate contact with somebody."
'Pornography Is Huge' Parents and educators today face new challenges. Zaloom, who works with public and private schools across the country to create programs on healthy sexuality and affirmative consent (also known as "yes means yes"), said the accessibility of free pornography, the self-objectification and hyper-sexualization seen on social media, and the "myth" of hook-up culture — which values impersonal sexual relationships — are obstacles she has to overcome when working with students who've had a ton of exposure to sex well before they step into her classroom.
"Pornography is huge," Zaloom said. "A lot of kids are porn-educated, or looking to porn to try and understand what real sex is like, so just that in and of itself is problematic."
Zaloom says sex ed should include conversations about pleasure and love, especially since pornography often fails to authentically reflect either.
"I think it’s really hard for parents," Zaloom said. "Nobody was talking about this in productive and healthy ways for us to actually model our conversations with our kids after. And who wants to think of their kids as sexual beings? I don’t!""
What A 'Healthy Relationship' Looks Like In her 6 week course for high schoolers, Zaloom traces the lifeline of romantic relationships. The breakdown:
Week One: Sexuality and Self (explores sexual identity, gender and self-love)
Week Two: Attraction and Authentic Connection (biochemistry and neurology, how a relationship begins, arousal, empathy and healthy vulnerability)
Week Three: Relationship Building and Sexual Exploration (looks at abstinence, hooking up and exclusivity, while also exploring consent and boundaries, birth control and sexually transmitted infections)
Week Four: Ethical Choice and Growth (porn literacy, pleasure and good sex)
Week Five: Adversity and Conflict (challenging conversations, unhealthy relationships and sexual assault)
Week Six: Dignity and Resilience (ending a relationship, surviving a breakup)
Benjamin Miller, a junior at the Urban School, took Zaloom's course his freshman and sophomore years, after receiving sex ed in middle school that focused largely on biology. He wasn't expecting much more, but was proven wrong, he said.
"I learned the overall importance of communication in relationships, because it seems like no what matter what sex problems people have ... it seems like one of the main things that's always lacking is communication, and one of the things that's always present in a healthy relationship is communication," he said. "And that's both during sex, but also in your daily life."
Relationship skills are a must, Zaloom says.
"The quality of your relationships will determine the quality of your life. It’s not the SAT scores. It’s not the college you go to," she said.
Healthy relationships are part of SRA education also, Mosack said.
"The #MeToo movement has forced a much needed conversation about sex and relationships," she said. "Teaching the components of a healthy relationship including honest communication, mutual respect and self-regulation are crucial. Teens especially need to understand personal autonomy and consent and be able to recognize the signs of sexual coercion in order to guard against sexual assault and violence."
A New Generation Miller, 17, said the biggest misconception among older adults is that girls are somehow responsible for the sexual violence they experience.
"I think that one of the things I hear a lot from parents, at least when they're watching the news, is 'Oh, why would she wear that if she didn't want someone to do this','" he said. "Rather than, 'Oh, we need to make these boys less horny or tell these girls to dress differently,' it needs to be more of a conversation about how do we counteract this need that boys feel to dominate situations, to express their masculinity that causes these sexual assaults, and have people come to terms with the fact that women have their own sexuality just like men do, and they can express it how they want."
Abby Walker, a senior at the Urban School who's also taken Zaloom's class, says it taught her to "always honor myself."
When the class addressed sexual violence, Walker said students were presented real-life scenarios to facilitate conversation.
"One of the most important things she taught me was to always be an ally, especially in situations of sexual assault," she said.
While #MeToo has raised red flags about how much young people are learning about boundaries, there are signs teens are already engaging in less risky behavior. A study published last year in the journal Child Development found today's teens are delaying sex compared to teens of the early '90s. Authors of the study say more attentive parenting is at least somewhat responsible.
Conversations about sex are rarely simple. But helping kids navigate the complexities of their sexuality, experts say, means not only will they learn how to keep themselves safe, but also how to make themselves happy.
"Consent is actually a pretty low bar," Zaloom said. "It’s essential. It’s what makes sex legal ... but I think we can aspire to create a cultural shift that actually makes sexual relationships ethical and joyful."
Click here to submit a piece