It’s an uncomfortable discussion that few students, teachers, or parents want to have. But the troubling lack of uniform, up-to-date sex education in Massachusetts needs attention from the Legislature.
The state’s problems are twofold: Sex education standards are outdated, and they are also optional.
The Legislature can quickly solve the first half of the problem by requiring updated standards for those public school districts that choose to offer sex ed. And it’s at least worth discussing a more difficult step: Whether Massachusetts should also join the 24 other states that make some form of sex ed mandatory in all public school districts.
Current standards, adopted in 1999, allow districts to teach an abstinence-heavy curriculum. It’s not clear that any of them actually do — the state doesn’t track districts’ curriculums — but revised standards should rule out that option. Ample research shows that sex education programs for youth based on abstinence don’t prevent unintended teen pregnancies or reduce sexually transmitted disease. On the contrary, teaching kids just to delay sex until marriage actually has been correlated to higher rates of teenage pregnancy and births.
The Healthy Youth Bill would require that standards for teaching sex education in public schools include comprehensive, age-appropriate, and medically accurate information. That includes teaching the benefits of abstinence and delaying sexual activity, along with the use of contraceptives and other barrier methods to prevent pregnancies and infections if one does have sex.
The bill leaves it to districts to choose a curriculum that meets those standards. “It could be a one-day seminar, it could be four weeks, or the duration of the school year,” said Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. “There’s a lot of flexibility built into the legislation.”
The bill, sponsored by state Representatives Jim O’Day and Paul Brodeur, and state Senator Sal DiDomenico, would make sure that schools with sex ed programs are teaching consent to youth and the skills necessary for a healthy relationship. “What is affirmative consent? Kids sometimes really don’t know how to disengage in a healthy manner,” said O’Day.
Opponents of the legislation argue that sex education belongs in the home and is the responsibility of parents. Except that teens are not talking about sex at home, according to the Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey. And the bill would allow parents to opt their children out of sex ed classes, as they can now.
The legislation deserves passage. But is it enough? The incidence of sexually transmitted diseases is rising in the state, with young people especially at risk. The growing awareness of sexual assault on campus has made it clear that many of the messages that sex ed classes are meant to teach aren’t getting through.
Along with the new standards proposed in the Legislature, the state should also start tracking how many schools are teaching sex ed at all. Getting a better grasp of what is actually being taught — or not taught — in schools across the Commonwealth would help the state determine whether further steps are needed.