Background: Why Teach Sexual Education?

With about half of all high school students admitting to have already had sex, and only 60% of those students claiming they used a condom, sexual education can be considered a public health imperative (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2019). Unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are the most important health-related reasons to teach sexual education in public schools. Research has shown that when sex education is comprehensive, students feel more informed, make safer choices and have healthier outcomes resulting in fewer unplanned pregnancies and more protection against sexually transmitted diseases and infection, (Americas Sex Education: How We Are Failing Our Students, 2017, p. 1). Children will seek out and find information related to sex outside the classroom, such as on the Internet, opening them up to potentially poor sources of information. Compounding the problem is that only 13 states currently require sexual education to be medically accurate, presenting clear ethical problems for educators and administrators (Americas Sex Education: How We Are Failing Our Students, 2017, p. 1).

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Sexual education is about a lot more than just reproductive health and safe sex, though. Preventing teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases is a primary objective of sexual education, but not the only reason why it is an ethical imperative. Sexual education allows young people to make informed choices. Moreover, comprehensive sexual education teaches children about communication skills, relationships skills, self-empowerment strategies, and the means by which to develop healthy sexual identities. Sexual education can help reduce the prevalence of mental illness and suicide among teens who struggle with their own sexual identity, and can help transform social norms surrounding sexuality and gender. Given that sexuality is an inherent part of human life, there is really no reason not to teach sexual education in public schools. All ethical perspectives, from deontological to utilitarian, would support comprehensive sexual education in American public schools.

Why Is Sexual Education Controversial?

If sexual education is important for improving outcomes for young people, then the matter should not be considered controversial. Yet as Lepore (2015) puts it, teaching sexual education in schools has rather a lot in common with foreign policy…in the way that arrogance, suspicion, and self-interest override generosity, cooperation, and amity, (p. 144). One of the reasons why teaching sexual education in classrooms is that there is a diversity of opinions over the role of education in teaching human sexuality. Historically, though, sexual education has been part of teacher training and education. In a historical assessment of sexual education policies and programs in the United States, Pardini (2019) found that sexual education has been considered a topic worthy of inclusion in public school curricula since the early twentieth century. Sexual education can be considered an essential life skill, alongside other elements of physical, psychological, and social health. Some religious groups and cultural groups might postulate that sexuality is too culturally bound to be taught in schools. If that were the case, then schools would simply need to introduce students to the anthropology of human sexuality to highlight the diversity of beliefs and practices around the world.

Sex is much more than biological reproduction, physiology, or psychology; it comes with cultural and social values and taboos. It can be considered a spiritual matter (Lepore, 2015, p. 144). Diversity makes it difficult to present material related to sexual norms of behavior in ways that please all parents and other stakeholders. Some points of controversy specifically include abortion and LGBTQ rights. Other sources of controversy include adapting the curriculum to teach sexual education differently to people with disabilities.

Because sexual education can be so controversial, there are distinct drawbacks with incorporating it into the standard curricula in public schools or changing state education policies. Yet these difficulties and challenges should not overshadow the fact that sexual literacy is as important as any other life skills course in school. Students have a right to understand their bodies, their minds, and the intricacies of intimate relationships. They also have a right to information about factors such as what constitutes sexual assault, how to avoid risky behaviors, and also how to develop a positive body image and sexual identity. Sexual education can reduce discrimination against people who develop non-binary gender identities or whose sexual orientations are fluid.

Why Not Teach Abstinence?

Suggesting abstinence is not a problem in itself. However, abstinence-only or abstinence-focused programs only masquerade as sexual education. Abstinence-focused programs are also not as secular as they seem, making them ethically problematic for public schools (Bauman, 2018, p. 1). In an analysis of sexual education programming in the United States, Bauman (2018) found many if not most abstinence-based sexual education programming in public schools are designed, developed, and promoted by evangelical Christian groups.

Abstinence-focused programs are culturally biased, to be sure, but they are also ethically problematic because they do not provide students with the information they need to remain healthy physically and psychologically. Kirby (2008): a review of 56 studies on the efficacy of abstinence programs and found that they were far less effective than comprehensive sexual education programming in changing student attitudes and behaviors. Abstinence is also unrealistic, given the fact that half of all high school students have had sex already (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2019). The abstinence-focused programs that are thinly veiled attempts to promote conservative Christian values may also leave out some of the most pertinent aspects of comprehensive sexual education, including information related to gender and sexual identity. To be effective and ethically sound, sexual education programs in public schools need to be comprehensive.

Content Considerations in Sexual Education

Sexual education, in order to remain ethically viable, needs to be evidence-based, culturally aware, age appropriate, and comprehensive. Comprehensive sexual education, according to the Planned Parenthood (2019) organization, includes information related to relationships, communication, decision-making, society, and culture, in addition to the standard information on reproductive health and gender identity. Factors like birth control, STDs, sexual assault, sexual harassment, sex trafficking, and LGBTQ are important components of a comprehensive sexual education program.

Sexual education should not stop at the classroom door, either. To be considered effective, sexual education needs to result in changes in student behavior at the individual and collective levels. School administrators need to make sexual education materials such as pamphlets, books, and other information available to all students. The school nurse or physicians office needs to provide students with access to prophylactics and contraception, as well as offer counseling services to students. Likewise, the schools need to form partnerships and alliances with local public health organizations to provide affordable, confidential, and free outreach services. Special attention should be paid to at-risk students, including those with developmental disabilities or those from disadvantaged backgrounds who might not have access to affordable reproductive healthcare.

Some sexual education classes can be considered truly comprehensive when they include references to historical and cultural diversity in the attitudes towards sex, in gender roles and norms, and also in the norms of sexual behavior. Teaching human sexuality gives teachers the opportunity to frankly address a plethora of sociological concerns such as gender roles and norms. For example, in a patriarchal society, men have considerably more leeway in their sexual behaviors than do women. At the same time, taboos against male homosexuality may be more severe in societies that are patriarchal. Sexual education can be incorporated into history and literature courses, and does not necessarily need to be taught as a dry, stand-alone subject that stresses the mechanics and biology of sexual reproduction. To make sure the students are engaged, interested, and eager to learn, sexuality needs to be taught in relevant and meaningful ways. Guest speakers or even popular culture icons could be used as vehicles to deliver appropriate sex education material in schools.

Sexual Education and Sexual Identity

Comprehensive sexual education programming does include information related to sexual orientation, sexual identity, and gender identity. It is not so much that schools teach students that they should actively choose their sexual identity, but that their sexual identity is uniquely their own and there is no normal standard for either gender or sexual attraction. In some cases, schools have become the only places where students receive positive messages about their sexuality, (Washburn, 2019, p. 1). Bullying, self-harm, and mental illness are problems that can affect individuals whose sexual identities are not properly supported at home or in schools. The media does play an important role in promoting LGBTQ rights, but schools should continue to provide abundant information and access to counseling services for LGBTQ students. Educational policymakers should more broadly aim to create a supportive and safe environment in which self-expression is normative. Sexual education programming serves a vital ethical need by promoting tolerance, and can be easily combined with anti-bullying programs that benefit all students.


The National Education Association in the United States started to call for sexuality education in 1912, and by 1940, sexual education was being called an urgent need, by federal public health organizations (Pardini, 2019, p. 1). The American Medical Association (AMA) and other organizations soon collaborated on the development of effective sexual education programming. By the 1960s, however, conservative Christian organizations started to protest sexual education in public schools (Pardini, 2019). Since the 1960s, legislation related to sexual education has been inconsistent and variable. According to the University of Southern California Department of Nursing (2017), only thirteen states require medically accurate sexual education in schools (p. 1).

Each state has its own sexual education policies. In 2019, California completely revamped its sexual education programming, bringing it more into alignment with the California Healthy Youth Act. What is interesting about the California approach is that it does not provide any curriculum for sexual education per se. Instead, the state offers guidelines that can be incorporated directly into various existing subjects such as science, history, and language arts (Washburn, 2019). In California, students from 7th grade onward are required to have between 10 and 13 hours of sexual education, but does not prohibit teachers from including sex ed content in earlier grades (Washburn, 2019). However, parents can opt out their children from most of the sexual education lessons. Parents cannot opt out their children from lessons pertaining to LGBTQ rights and issues (Washburn, 2019)

Why Sexual Education Is An Ethical Responsibility

It is a direct responsibility of public schools to teach sexual education comprehensively to students. Utilitarian ethical perspectives that stress the importance of promoting the greatest good for the greatest number of people certainly support teaching sexual education. Sexual education taught properly, rather than focusing on abstinence only, will lead to improved health outcomes for young people (Kirby, 2008). The United States has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the developed world, in part due to inconsistent and ineffective sexual education (Americas Sex Education: How We Are Failing Our Students, 2019). From a utilitarian perspective, it is also important to consider the net effects of poor sexual education on the society. Teenagers who become pregnant are more likely than their peers to live in poverty, depend on public assistance, and be in poor health, (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2019).

Effective reproductive and sexual health information can also promote the greatest good for the greatest number by focusing on the social justice issues at stake: persons who are already from disadvantaged backgrounds will have fewer resources outside of school for sexual health. As a result, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are at a much higher risk for becoming pregnant or contracting an infectious disease, not to mention being susceptible to bullying or mental illness due to lack of information related to healthy sexual identity development. Sexual education helps even the playing field, ensuring equitable access to information.

A deontologist would also support sexual education program, on the grounds that all knowledge should be equitably distributed among members of the society. Also, sexual education empowers people and provides individuals with the tools they need to make effective behavioral choices. The choices adolescents make about their sexuality can last a lifetime. A deontologist would also recognize the moral duty to teach sexual education in order to promote positive public health outcomes, reduce the rates of teen pregnancy, reduce prevalence of discrimination against LGBTQ students, and reduce the rates of infectious diseases. Teaching sex education is also an ethical imperative because of the medical, economic, and sociological implications extending to the entire community and society (Lepore, 2015, p. 144). Therefore, teaching comprehensive and should be mandatory in all fifty states.

A libertarian would hold slightly different views on teaching sexual education in public schools. Because libertarians are less concerned with moral imperatives or promoting the greater good, and more concerned with individual freedoms and liberties, it is possible that a libertarian would support parents who object to sexual education. Such views neglect to acknowledge that parents would scarcely be permitted to object to their children learning math or literature; a student who lacks access to information about sexuality is at a considerable disadvantage. Less information about sexuality restricts ones personal rights and freedoms, and therefore libertarians should consider the value of information dissemination as being critical for a genuinely free society.


Sexual education has become a controversial subject in the United States primarily because of the influence of religious and conservative views on education policy. Some parents may fear that schools will teach their children to behave immorally: which reflects poorly on the American attitude towards education in general. In order to prepare students for making informed choices about their bodies, and in order to improve public health outcomes, sexual education is a fundamental imperative in public schools. With improved access to structured, consistent, and , future generations will be more empowered, make safer and more intelligent choices, and be more comfortable with sexual diversity.


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