Comprehensive Sex Education: Out With the Old, In With the New

Comprehensive Sex Education: Out With the Old, In With the New

By Holly Bloomfield, Editorial Intern

Do you remember your sex education? Were girls and boys separated — where girls were taught about menstruation and boys practiced putting condoms on a banana? Perhaps, this is more sex education than you ever received! Maybe, just maybe, you were one of the lucky ones who had a teacher or parent who understood its importance and taught you everything you know. Herein lies the problem; with such varying degrees and experiences with sex education, people are entering the world with vastly different tools to navigate relationships with others and themselves. 

Comprehensive Sex Education: Defined

Not all sex education is created equal! Despite the prevalence of abstinence-only sex education in America, other forms of sex education have continued to develop. Comprehensive sex education takes an all-encompassing, education-based approach that is supported by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) education program. It follows eight key concepts:

  1. Relationships
  2. Values, rights, and culture and sexuality
  3. Understanding gender
  4. Violence and staying safe
  5. Skills for health and well-being
  6. The human body and development
  7. Sexuality and sexual behaviour
  8. Sexual and reproductive health 

Take a moment to reflect on your sex education. Which of these topics were covered? In my experience, it stopped with the human body and development, and sexual and reproductive health with a heavy emphasis on reproduction. 

Comprehensive Sex Education in Action 

The goal of comprehensive sex education is to provide everyone the tools to make informed, empowered and autonomous decisions regarding their own bodies and well-being, as well as those of others. This is done through age-appropriate, dynamic education for everyone. With the guidance of the eight key topics, comprehensive sex education is taught with three main learning objectives: knowledge, attitude and skill-building. The combination of these three objectives leads to informed individuals who are able to shape their own understanding of themselves and the world, and have the tools to positively impact their environment. No more splitting classes by the gender binary or only learning what is deemed socially important. With the implementation of comprehensive sex education, gone would be the days of advice boiling down to abstinence: the best way to have sex is to not.

Ok, But Does it Work?

The best part of comprehensive sex education? It works! A 2016 review of comprehensive sex education programs found that when implemented, it results in delayed initiation of sex, reduced risk taking, and increased use of condoms and other contraception. Another study found that it led to an increase in sexual empowerment elements including better attitudes about women, and a general increase in sexual health and resource knowledge. Not only does comprehensive sex education work, but it is more effective than abstinence-based programs. One study compared HIV and other STI rates following both abstinence-only programs and comprehensive sex education programs and found that the abstinence-only had not reduced infection rates, while comprehensive sex education had. A common argument against comprehensive sex education is that talking about sex will lead to younger people doing it more, but the same 2016 review found the opposite; comprehensive sex education led to decreased number of sexual partners and decreased frequency. It is time to face the facts and understand that comprehensive sex education is keeping people safer. 

Comprehensive Sex Education and Shaping Our Future

Imagine a world where everyone comes into each situation with the tools to keep themself and those around them safe. Where healthy relationships of all kinds are prioritized. Where the gender binary is not forced on children in their sex education. Where your partners, friends and family understand all bodies, including yours. Where non-menstruators understand menstruation, for example. This world is possible with widespread implementation of comprehensive sex education. Not only is it possible, but this is what Americans want; surveys continually show that an overwhelming majority of American adults are in support of comprehensive sex education. It is time for comprehensive sex education for all. 


For educators looking to implement comprehensive sex education, or anyone interested in learning more, consult the UNESCO International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education, found here: UNESCO 

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