As a teen in rural Appalachia, I didn’t know what I was missing when it came to my abstinence-only sex education. It wasn’t until I endured an emotionally abusive relationship as a young medical student that I began to question how I, as a strong, independent woman, could end up in something so psychologically toxic. After gaining the silent courage to leave that relationship, I did a deep dive into unhealthy relationships and how we, as a society, can prevent this type of violence. The answer: comprehensive sex education.
Contrary to popular belief, comprehensive sex education isn’t actually about sex. Instead, it teaches critical life skills that are desperately needed in our society. SIECUS: Sex Ed For Social Change defines comprehensive sex education as:
Programs that, in school-based settings, start by kindergarten and continue through 12th grade. High-quality [comprehensive sex education] programs include age, developmentally, and culturally appropriate, science-based, and medically accurate information on a broad set of topics related to sexuality, including human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behaviors, including abstinence, sexual health, and society and culture.
I quickly discovered that core topics within comprehensive sex education include healthy relationships, self-esteem, body confidence, gender equity, communication, empathy, and respect. I felt empowered with this information… and this launched my mission to discover why the United States continues to fail its youth (and all people, really) by not teaching these core concepts. The truth: most people think sex education is about sex… but it’s so much more than that!
As a young woman from rural Appalachia, I’m well aware that until people learn what sex education truly is, it won’t be widely accepted in our society. That’s why I created the Sexuality Education Legislation and Policy: A State-by-State Comparison of Health Indicators story map. This story map explores sexuality education legislation by state, compared to each state’s respective health indicators, including sexual violence, physical dating violence, bullying/harassment, suicide, contraceptive prevalence rate, sexually transmitted infection (STI) rate, and teen birth rate. This story map can be used as a visually accessible advocacy tool to demonstrate the breadth of health indicators impacted by comprehensive sex education. In addition to the sexual and reproductive health benefits, comprehensive sex education is a powerful vehicle for addressing reproductive justice, gender equity, LGBTQ+ equality, violence prevention, and power and oppression.
Imagine a world where kids know the names of their reproductive body parts, empowering them with the terminology to describe sexual abuse to trusted adults. A world where youth are guided in development of healthy self-identities and positive self-esteem. A world that cultivates respect for persons of all gender identities and sexual orientations. A world that teaches students that bullying is wrong as well as how to respond if they are being bullied. A world where young people are taught ways to serve as healthy partners. A world that teaches consent and bodily autonomy, that empowers all people to set personal boundaries for physical touch and intimacy. A world that encourages mutually respectful and equitable relationships.
This is sex education. It teaches critical life skills. It prevents sexual violence, physical dating violence, bullying, and suicide. It literally saves lives. May is #SexEdForAll month, and this month we highlight that all young people deserve developmentally and culturally responsive, science-based, and medically accurate life skills education. My sex education failed me, and it is on all of us to ensure sex education doesn’t fail the generations to come.
**Feature photo obtained with standard license on Shutterstock.
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Rebekah L. Rollston, MD, MPH, is a Family Medicine Physician at Cambridge Health Alliance, Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Affiliate Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Medical School Primary Care Review. She also serves as Director of Research at Bicycle Health, a digital health startup that provides biopsychosocial treatment for opioid use disorder via telehealth. Her professional interests focus on social determinants of health & health equity, gender-based violence, sexual & reproductive health, addiction medicine, rural health, homelessness & supportive housing, and immigrant health.