Very few school boards, superintendents, and principals welcome the prospect of dealing with issues around sex education, often an invitation to controversy and a divided community. If three Harvard University researchers had their way, however, districts across the country would not only teach sex education, but also retool it to focus on healthy relationships.
Sex education courses in most states (22 states and the District of Columbia mandate it) tend to be built around some form of abstinence education. Thirty-seven states require coverage of abstinence, compared to the 18 that require information on contraception, according to the Guttmacher Institute. While sex ed should continue to address these specific issues, say Richard Weissbourd, Amelia Peterson, and Emily Weinstein in the latest issue of Phi Delta Kappan, they argue that it’s time to shift focus away from “self-control” issues and what they call “disaster prevention” – preventing teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, etc.
Instead, the authors believe sex education should primarily be about helping young people navigate through the rocky emotional terrain of romantic relationships.
“Failure to prepare young people for healthy love and sex can reverberate destructively throughout their lives,” they write. “Divorce (which ends nearly half of all first marriages), constant marital conflict or quieter marital misery, and the inability to even form a relationship all reflect this failure. Sexual education would be far more meaningful and productive if it focused on developing, maintaining, and ending romantic and sexual relationships with integrity and care.”
The authors point out that the inability to build and sustain relationships not only reverberates through students’ academic careers but will be felt through their adult lives, contributing to domestic problems, stress and financial difficulties. Healthy and stable romantic relationships, on the other hand, are associated with healthier lifestyles and even higher wages.
Weissbourd, Peterson and Weinstein argue that sex education in the United States is generally modeled on the faulty premise that teenagers are engaging in casual sexual encounters with little or no interest in emotional intimacy.
The three researchers surveyed high school and college students from diverse backgrounds and found that they 1) are interested in establishing more mature relationships and 2) look to sex education in school to provide at least some of the guidance on developing the necessary skills to form healthy relationships. Almost 70 percent wanted to talk more in sex ed “how to develop a mature relationship” and roughly 46 percent wanted to talk more about dealing with breakups. Forty-six percent of wanted more conversation about how to begin a relationship, and over one-third of students wanted to discuss “how to avoid getting hurt in relationships.”
And don’t expect teenagers to get this guidance at home. According to Weissbourd, Peterson and Weinstein, “Parents struggle with how to pass on wisdom about sexual and romantic relationships to their kids or don’t see this guidance as their role… The lack of modeling and conversation creates a perilous void. Young people often wind up learning about sex and love from their peers, the Internet, or the media. For adults to hand over responsibility for educating young people about love and sex to popular culture is a dumbfounding, epic abdication of responsibility.”
Therefore, the only realistic, and most rewarding, alternative is school. Several other countries – including the high achieving school systems in South Korea, Norway, South Korea and New Zealand – mandate general relationship education in earlier grades and romantic relationships are addressed in middle and high school.
Refocusing sex education is on the radar in the United States, however. In 2012, a collaborative effort between the American Association of Health Education, the American School Health Association, NEA’s Health Information Network, the Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education and the Future of Sex Education Initiative produced the National Sexuality Education Standards, which are aligned to the National Health Education Standards. The standards state that “sexuality education should teach both information and essential skills that are necessary to adopt, practice, and maintain healthy relationships and behaviors.”
Conceding that the political roadblocks are formidable, Weissbourd, Peterson and Weinstein maintain that changing the current course is essential.
“Given the terrible downsides of neglect and the large health, educational, and ethical benefits of thoughtful romantic relationship education, how can we possibly not keep pushing down this path? We can continue to righteously wring our hands about sex-crazed teenagers. Or we can take real steps toward helping young people develop the skills and wisdom they need to love well at many stages of their lives.”