This article is part of a series highlighting findings from The State of Sex — an O.school original 2021 study in partnership with Pilotly. The State of Sex study consisted of a 103-question online survey administered to 1,074 US participants, ages 18-75 with an average age of 44.
The study was representative of the US population and oversampled Black, Asian, and Latinx respondents to obtain holistic, readable data on ethnicities and sexual orientation. Our findings enable us to better understand sexual habits, behaviors, attitudes, and consumption.
If you feel like you didn’t get the best sex education in school, you’re not alone. Our State of Sex survey found that schools all over the country are severely lacking when it comes to teaching a range of topics in sex education. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our survey found that 35% of students only experience abstinence-only education. Less than half of Americans (44%) receive information about basic reproductive anatomy, and just 41% learn about STI prevention and contraception methods like birth control.
Only 13% of students are taught about diverse sexual and gender identities
These stats are consistent with information presented in a 2017 fact sheet on American sex education from the Guttmacher Institute. According to research cited in the report, less than half of high schools and just a fifth of middle schools taught students sexual health topics considered “essential” by the Centers for Disease Control. The report also highlights geographical differences in the kind of sex ed that young people receive, with rural students receiving significantly less formal sex ed than those in urban areas.
Sex ed for LGBTQ+ youth is particularly lacking
According to the same Guttmacher fact sheet, under 6% of LGBTQ+ youth said that topics relating to sexual orientation and gender diversity were presented in a positive light in their sex ed curriculum. Just 12 out of 50 states require educators to talk about sexual orientation in sex ed classes — and three of those states mandate sharing only negative material about diverse sexual orientations. Sexuality researcher and educator Dr. Shemeka Thorpe tells O.school: “Failing to teach people about gender identity is a disservice for queer people who may not feel represented in heteronormative sexuality education curriculums.”
On the bright side, there have been some positive changes
Although education about health and sexuality still falls short for many young Americans, there has been progress over time. The number of people taught consent in school has almost doubled from one generation to the next: 23% of boomers were taught consent in school, and now, 43% of millennials have been taught consent.
Dr. Thorpe notes, "There is a positive shift in the history of sex education. People are now offered sexuality education and puberty education at earlier ages. This wasn't an option among boomers, many of [whom] didn't have access to sexuality education throughout their lifespan."
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