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Let's Change The Subject: Sex Education In America And How AIDS Impacted The Discussion

The Puritanical curriculum of sex education invented in America, otherwise known as Abstinence-only sex education, is still a popular curriculum in many school districts, oft those which have a heavily Christian influence. This curriculum was popular throughout school systems during much of the 20th century, and, up until 1980, sex education was mandated in only 3 states. It wasn't until AIDS became the fearsome, yet mysterious, killer it was (is) that sex education programs had to be looked at more closely.

In 1986, US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop addressed the nation, his words reported via a Times cover story[1]. He stated, bluntly: "There is now no doubt that we need sex education in schools and that it must include information on heterosexual and homosexual relationships. …we have to be as explicit as necessary to get the message across. You can't talk of the dangers of snake poisoning and not mention snakes." Koop was openly speaking for the nation on this health issue, functioning as his position dictated him to function. While many parents had begun to privately change their views on sex education leading up to Koop's 1986 proclamation, it took the leadership of the US Surgeon General to propel us forward. By 1993, 47 states had mandated a form of sex education. The AIDS scare turned sex education on its head.

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Abstinence-only sex education

While abstinence appeals to the morally-inclined parents who do not wish their children to begin having sex before marriage, there is a great deal of evidence that has pointed out the short-comings of abstinence-only sex education. Namely, it doesn't work. Abstinence-only sex education has been shown to not decrease HIV risk in developed countries, it does not decrease teenage pregnancy, and it does not reduce rates of sexual activity amongst teenagers. Abstinence, the "do as I say, not as I do" approach, fails remarkably.

In the US, abstinence-only sex education still exists. In 37 states[2], abstinence must be taught as part of a sex education program, and in 26 of these states, abstinence is stressed as the best method of contraception. Mind you, there is a distinct correlation between abstinence-only sex education and higher rates of teen pregnancy. However, the federal government has pumped over $1.7 billion dollars into abstinence-only programs since 1982[3].

While AIDS might have changed the conversation initially, it simultaneously opened up an avenue for the same pseudo-scientific hokum we see from anti-vaxxers and anti-GMO groups. Abstinence, the remnant of America's puritanical past, remains as costly and ineffective as ever. Moreover, its unproven foundation leads to even more dire consequences than does the "morally corrupt" teaching of contraception and prevention. While, we may have made great leaps and bounds in terms of furthering the prevention of HIV transmission as a result of the AIDS crisis, we have yet to go far enough. AIDS is still as virulent as ever, and social authorities such as the US government and the Papacy continue to preach abstinence over contraception. The conversation is ready for another shift.

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Comprehensive sex education

Comprehensive sex education focuses on preventative measures that include information on contraceptives, sexual fidelity, and disease prevention. The methods of teaching a comprehensive sex education curriculum have been empirically shown to reduce the rates of teen pregnancy, STD transmission (especially HIV), and sexual activity amongst teenagers. As an alternative to abstinence-only sex education, the comprehensive sex education offered primarily in the Northeast has demonstrated a greater overall efficacy, and access to it is leaps and bounds ahead of access in the South and Midwest.

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Unironically, comprehensive sex education is more commonly found in stable, white communities with a greater overall mean income. Children from low-income, minority families are more likely to be exposed to an abstinence-only sex education program. Given the preponderance of STDs, including HIV and AIDS, amongst low-income, minority peoples, it would seem that those who stand the most to gain from comprehensive sex education are those that are not receiving it. Rather, they are taught to repress their feelings of sexual desire until marriage. The idea of repression of sexual desire, likely the most harmful idea we can put into a teenagers mind during puberty, is rejected and rates of sexual activity increase, naturally leading to the consequences outlined in the previous section.

It appears that the AIDS crisis did benefit the white community as a whole, almost exclusively in the Northeast, yet left many behind. In opening up a discussion, school systems responded by teaching values over science. While not entirely unjustified early on, the efficacy of these programs was tested and found wanting. The problem then arises that we have not done anything to change the conversation since the mandates of the 90s. While groups have arisen and taken the fight to DC, no meaningful legislation has yet been passed in order to counteract the generally harmful abstinence-only programs present in over 50% of the US.

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While AIDS was once a conversation starter in terms of dialing up discussion of sex education, it has turned into a complete non-starter. AIDS is oft viewed as a faraway disease, relegated to the underdeveloped and undeveloped countries. Yet, there are an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 new diagnoses of HIV / AIDS each year, with over 1.7 million individuals in the US presently living with infection. We ought to be teaching prevention of the disease rather than sexual repression. After all, one method is empirically proven to work, while the other only increases the likelihood of its transmission.


[1]

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[2] As of 2012:

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[3] http://siecus.org/_data/n_0001/r…

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