Our educational system is designed to provide students with the opportunity to learn about a number of academic subjects, as well as important life skills. As young people grow up, they will inevitably face situations in which they need to make important decisions about relationships and sexual behaviour.
Some students will find information about sexual health from other sources such as parents, friends, medical professionals, pop culture, and social media. However, sex education programs within schools are often the best opportunities for students to learn about the risks and responsibilities involved with sexual encounters. Studies have shown that ongoing, age-appropriate sexual health education programs help young people to make safe, informed decisions about this significant part of their lives.
Understanding the need for sex education
A comprehensive education would cover information about students’ developing bodies, sexual identities, relationships, sexual situations, communication strategies, as well as available healthcare and informational resources. By informing young people about many issues revolving around sexuality, schools can help students to prevent underage pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
These are often the most obvious statistics we focus on when exploring the consequences surrounding sex. However, providing students with skills for communicating about sexual issues can be crucial for those who may otherwise be unable or unwilling to seek out advice or safety practices surrounding sexual activity.
Students can also learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships, which can help them navigate conflicts and negotiations regarding their bodies and sexual activity. This can encourage students to treat each other with respect as well as providing a pathway for help for students who may face sexual violence or abuse.
Combatting sexually transmitted diseases
While many institutions support abstinence-only programs, this strategy denies students the opportunity to learn about other acceptable safety practices. Contrary to some beliefs, sex education programs aren’t designed to encourage students to engage in sexual activity. With or without these programs, people may choose to do so at a young age. One of the most obvious results of these activities is the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Without an understanding of the risks and symptoms of STDs, students may be more likely to avoid protective or preventive measures such as using condoms or committing to sexual abstinence. While many STDs can be treated or even cured, a student who does not understand what is happening to their body or doesn’t have the language or confidence to seek help may suffer unnecessarily. Taking this a step further, these same people may then unknowingly spread STDs to others, which can quickly escalate into an unhealthy cycle of transmission.
Helping to reach at-risk groups
Aside from supporting a more knowledgeable society as a whole, sex education is one of the most important factors to consider when curbing negative trends within the most at-risk populations. For example, when examining groups at a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that gay and bisexual men made up 82 per cent of new diagnoses in 2015.
Unpacking this further, another study showed that around 23 per cent of gay and bisexual American men live below the poverty line. This limits their access to testing and treatment options, leading to increased rates of infection. Social stigmas surrounding the condition also discourage men from seeking out treatment or testing.
African-American men also make up a significant portion of HIV/AIDS patients, accounting for around 44 per cent of males who are diagnosed. Again, poverty and a lack of resources are major contributing factors to this trend. Aside from facing social stigmas related to the LGBTQ community, African-American men may also face additional challenges created by discriminatory hiring practices that prevent them from obtaining well-paying jobs and medical benefits.
It’s important to acknowledge the many factors that may put certain groups at risk for this and other STDs. While sex education programs may not be designed to create major social changes related to institutional discrimination, expanding programs within at-risk communities can allow these groups to better understand the risks they face. By learning about the resources available to them and having exposure to conversations about seemingly taboo subjects, individuals might feel empowered to protect themselves from infection and seek help and treatment when necessary.
Women also face specific health challenges regarding their bodies and sexual behaviours. Because of this, it is essential that young women learn to identify the resources available to them as well as particular symptoms that might point to general gynaecological health problems, sexually transmitted diseases, and life-threatening conditions like breast, ovarian, and cervical cancers.
Supplementing public education with online tools
When designing and instituting comprehensive sex education programs, it can be extremely difficult to meet each students’ needs. In some cases, students may have specific questions they don’t feel comfortable asking within a school setting. Fortunately, online sex education tools stand to help meet more individualized learning needs, encouraging further exploration of specific issues students might face.
These programs might include interactive learning modules and quizzes, allowing students to engage with the lesson materials and test their knowledge. Online programs might also offer individual tutoring options that allow students to ask specific questions without the pressure of learning in front of their peers.
By approaching sex education from a variety of fronts, including age-appropriate programs within schools as well as reputable digital resources, we can ensure that students can navigate complicated issues regarding their bodies, communication, and sexual situations with the information necessary to make safe decisions.
Frankie Wallace is a freelance journalist from Boise, Idaho and contributes to a variety of blogs across the web.