Today it seems that access to comprehensive sexual education in the United States is a privilege. According to a 2006-2008 National Survey on Family Growth, 46 percent of males and 33 percent of females do not receive formal education regarding contraception prior to losing their virginity. Only 21 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in schools. Even where sex ed does occur, problems persist.
Adam: Take my sister, for example. She came out as a lesbian in the smallest public high school in rural New Jersey, where hunting, high school sports and maintaining a certain small-town way of life take priority. In my hometown, homosexuality seemed like a foreign concept. Being the first openly gay student in our community, she faced severe harassment, including schoolmates writing "dyke" on her locker and tearing down pictures of her and her girlfriend, and childhood friends abandoning her. While our high school did have a sexual education program that addressed safer sex, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV, the program failed to create a safe environment to discuss individual sexual identities and sexual health. Without an LGBT-inclusive curriculum, homosexuality was received with hostility and disapproval. As her little brother, watching her suffer and not being able to do anything to stop the homophobia infuriated me.
Eric: Growing up in Northern Westchester, I was privileged to attend one of the best public school systems in the country. We had access to everything: dozens of Advanced Placement classes, after-school activities and even basic health education starting in fifth grade. However, we did not have trained professionals to discuss sex and sexuality. Health classes were taught by gym instructors, leaving a void that other teachers felt the need to fill. My twelfth grade English teacher tried to open up a dialogue about LGBT identities by showing a video on transgender individuals and proposing that in a class of 20, two students were probably transgender or gay. Though the information was wrong, it did not stop the speculation as to which students in the class were actually transgender. Misinformation led to "gay-hunting," teasing and a misunderstanding about basic human sexuality.
As students in America, we have a right to unbiased and uncensored information. We have a right to be provided with accurate materials about health and sexuality from certified and trained professionals.
Growing up without a comprehensive sexual education system has left our generation with a myriad of problems. HIV rates are on the rise among young Americans for the first time since the epidemic broke out in the 1980s. Young people aged 13 to 29 account for over 30 percent of the 50,000 new HIV infections each year. Broken down, this means that every hour, two individuals in our generation are infected with the virus. Even more, a disproportionate number of young gay and bisexual men of color must face the brunt of the epidemic. Though antiretrovirals have greatly extended the life expectancy of those living with HIV, a mixture of physical, mental and financial stresses still makes living with the virus a daily challenge.
These concerns led us to conduct preliminary research as interns for the Public Policy Department at Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) about HIV-risk perception among men who have sex with men, knowledge about HIV and successful preventative measures. The answers we received from the participants in our study were far below acceptable standards. In terms of understanding how the virus could be transmitted, 24 percent of participants believed that HIV could be transmitted through mutual masturbation, and 7 percent were confident that HIV could not be transmitted through unprotected anal intercourse. When discussing how long after exposure to HIV most tests can detect the virus, only half (74) of the men correctly responded that the exposure window was three months. A quarter of the men felt surprisingly insecure about being able to voice a desire to use condoms, citing a fear of rejection from their partner as well as assuming that requesting condoms would make them appear to have HIV or other STIs.
At the same time, other young people are also at risk. In the United States, we have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world. Of the 750,000 pregnancies among women aged 15 to 19 each year, 80 percent of them are unintended. These pregnancies are so commonplace that they are even the focal point of television series, such as MTV's Teen Mom.
Our generation is facing the consequences of sexual liberation without sexual education. The results show why we need sex ed. Our parents and previous generations fought for the rights of individuals to express themselves in all ways possible, a noble and important cause, but what they missed was a critical moment in history to implement programs that provide young people the right to information in order to make healthy and responsible decisions about their sexual health.
In the current congressional session, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act. The bill includes guidelines as to what sexual education programs must (and must not) include to receive federal funding, ensures that students at all level of schooling have access to sexual education, trains instructors on how to best inform students of important yet possibly uncomfortable information and allows for sexual education that is inclusive of LGBT identities to be presented in the classroom. Importantly, the act would strike language from the Public Health Services Act that prevents schoolteachers from using any language that "promotes" homosexuality or discusses it in a positive light.
By passing the Real Education for Health Youth Act, we would ensure that Americans know their bodies, know their health and are empowered through comprehensive sexual education programs to make healthy and responsible decisions about sexual health. We must continue to spark dialogues and ensure that students have a forum in which to voice concerns and receive accurate answers to questions on sexuality and sexual health.
For more information on the current state of sex and HIV education in the United States, click here.