by Juliana Kenny
As the U.S. plunges further into a politically fraught presidential race, women’s rights remain at the forefront. Many Americans see issues like the right to an abortion and access to birth control as top concerns for the next administration. Underlying these healthcare-based debates is another controversial issue: the sexuality education system.
President Obama shined a spotlight on sex ed in America this year by cutting a $10 million per year grant from the Department of Health and Human Services that supports abstinence-only programs in schools. The debate on how, why, or even whether or not to teach U.S. school children about sexual health is turbulent: religion, politics, and sexism all play a role. To gain a better understanding of how the sex education system in the U.S. intertwines with these branches of culture, Blouin News spoke with Dr. Jill McDevitt, a U.S. sexologist, educator, and author who seeks to change the ways in which schools and communities approach sex ed to include a more comprehensive structure.
It is not news that the current American sex education system isn’t working. A Guttmacher Institute study titled Changes in Adolescents’ Receipt of Sex Education, 2006-2013, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that between 2006–2010 and 2011–2013 there were “significant declines in adolescent females’ receipt of formal instruction about birth control (70% to 60%), saying no to sex (89% to 82%), sexually transmitted disease (94% to 90%), and HIV/AIDS (89% to 86%).” Additionally, males’ receipt of instruction about birth control declined 61% to 55%. And this is just one of a handful of studies conducted over the last few years that explore the holes in school-based instruction on sexual health.
McDevitt argues that the “service” the U.S. education system is providing to children in terms of sexual health is barely a service at all. She told Blouin News:
I’m frankly hard-pressed to think of a single example how it does any “service”, so basically, it’s all just one big disservice. Some exceptionally problematic aspects that really do a disservice include the medical inaccuracies and the outright lies, the exclusion of any actual real and relevant teaching about pleasure, identity, emotions, relationships, or anything that makes us sexual beings, and the blatant misogyny that breeds rape culture, such as lessons on girls who have sex being like used chewing gum and dirty shoes.
Todd Akin’s 2012 comments on how “legitimate rape” “rarely” leads to pregnancy are hard to forget — indeed, they are a dark blemish on the GOP’s relationship with women and women’s health issues. As a Republican representative from Missouri, Akin exposed the deeply entrenched problems an inadequate health education system can perpetuate: flat-out misinformation about biology. Fast forward a few years, and former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has made remarks about how the U.S. is “spending too much money on women’s health.” Not to mention the vast number of ignorant or disparaging remarks current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made regarding female bodies. So, why are prominent politicians blundering right and left on women’s health and biology?
McDevitt says that “in addition to their poor biological understanding, their bias can also be attributed to the crisis of sex education in the U.S.” And she emphasizes just how a comprehensive sex education system in the U.S. would look:
True comprehensive sexuality education would encompass all facets of sexuality, which includes empathy and perspective-taking, bodily autonomy, and concepts of fairness and justice within sexuality and sexual health.
Currently, those elements go unaddressed all too often in schools, and misinformation or lack of information can translate into a generally misinformed public. The lack or inadequacy of sex education directly correlates to health trends such as teen birth rates. The Guttmacher Institute in 2015 compared sex education systems in countries around the world, and found exceptionally low teen pregnancy, birth and abortion rates in Switzerland “where long-established sex education programs, free family planning services and low-cost emergency contraception are widely available, and sexually active teens are expected to use contraceptives.” While the teen birth rates in the U.S. have been declining overall over the last few years, the study found that — in contrast to countries such as Switzerland — the U.S.’s rates of teen pregnancy, birth and abortion were among the highest. The study cited “low societal acceptance of teen sexuality, inconsistent provision of sex education, and socioeconomic inequalities” as contributing factors.
Add to that the fact that America’s sex education system is generations-old, generally lacking in the elements McDevitt mentioned — empathy, bodily autonomy, and others — and its influence on political decisions regarding women’s health may appear especially alarming. McDevitt said: “If the Todd Akins and Donald Trumps of the world had learned about such things, their positions on abortion and birth control would likely be far more kind.”