“Mean Girls” Sex Ed: Better than Texas?
One of the best scenes from the movie Mean Girls features a snapshot of sex ed in a high-school health class-the teacher warns students not to have sex because they'll get pregnant and die, and then proceeds to distribute condoms to the class.
This parody, which takes place in a fictional Illinois high school, became a little more realistic in May after the Illinois state legislature passed a bill requiring high school sex education to include information about effective methods of birth control. The bill passed by the Illinois state House and Senate expands sex education to include a more comprehensive curriculum, including abstinence, contraception, HIV/AIDS, and sexually transmitted infections. Schools and parents still have the option to opt-out of sex education without penalty if they wish.
The bill represents a major step forward for education and public health, and it's one Texas should look to in order to prevent unintended pregnancies and improve the health of our teens.
Read about how the current state of sex ed is harming Texas teens after the jump. The Illinois bill comes at a time when more and more American teens are sexually active. By age 19, 71% of teens will have had sex. Though teenage pregnancies have declined over the past two decades, the CDC reports that the US still has the highest teen birth rate in the developed world. Half of those pregnant teens reported that they did not use any form of birth control when they got pregnant, and of these, “nearly one third (31.4%) believed they could not get pregnant at the time.” Despite this, abstinence-only education that ignores contraception is prominently on the rise. 25 states, including Texas, currently require that abstinence be stressed, while only 17 require information about contraception be provided. This is especially troubling when studies have repeatedly shown that comprehensive, “abstinence-plus” education is highly effective. Comprehensive sex education does not increase the likelihood of adolescent sexual activity, but it does significantly lower the risk of pregnancy compared to abstinence-only education.
Texas politicians have ignored widely accepted facts and instituted a strictly abstinence-only curriculum. A Texas Freedom Network report found that 94% of sex education in Texas is abstinence-only, and “more than 96 percent of school districts – with more than 3.7 million students – fail to teach any medically accurate information on responsible pregnancy and disease prevention.” Fear, shame, and religion are commonly used tactics to try to dissuade teens from engaging in sexual activity. It's no surprise that these methods don't seem to be working. Texas ranks 4th in the nation in teen pregnancies. 20% of sexually active Texas high schoolers don't use any form of contraception, well above the national rate of 13% who have unprotected sex. We also have one of the highest rates of repeat teenage pregnancies in the US. In contrast, California, who uses a comprehensive, medically-accurate curriculum has seen its teen birth rate plummet.
Texas lawmakers haven't done much about sex education, but when they have it's been (in typical Texas Lege fashion) designed in a way that harms poor and minority women. In the spring legislative session, state Senator Ken Paxton (R-McKinney) introduced SB 521, which would prohibit the use of sex ed materials that came from an abortion provider (i.e. Planned Parenthood), and would require parents to fill out a form to opt-in to sex education instead of opting out. Placing the burden on parents to opt-in to sex ed would ensure that many children would not receive sex education, especially for children coming from low-socioeconomic backgrounds with less-involved parents, who are the ones that need effective public education the most. Though the bill ultimately didn't become law this session, it shows where Republican legislators' priorities are when it comes to sex education-they're only in favor of talking about it when they can promote a harmful ideological agenda at great expense to public health.
Abstinence-only education harms Texas in a variety of ways. It hurts teens by “alienating the young people at highest risk of negative health outcomes by promoting a 'one size fits all' vision of adolescence that matches the true experiences of only a minority of youth.” It hurts state institutions, placing a financial burden on them to provide for more teenage mothers without the means to provide for their families. And it makes our state more unequal, disproportionately putting poor and minority teens at risk for STIs and pregnancy because they lack the resources to seek out medically-accurate information about sex from outside sources. Public health should replace ideology as the driving force behind Texas sex education policies. We should look to Illinois as a model for how to effectively incorporate abstinence and contraception into sex ed curriculum. Equipping our teens with the right information make healthy choices in adulthood is crucial, and it is the way to ensure a safe, healthy, thriving population in the future.