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October 25, 2020 – This week, Dr. Sara C. Flowers, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, spoke with Shape.com about the status of sex education across the United States, including Washington state’s Referendum 90, which for the first time puts K-12 sex education on the ballot to be decided by voters.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, very few states currently require sex education, and for most students it only starts in middle and high school. Dr. Flowers explained the value of providing young people of all ages with the foundation to understand their bodies and how to communicate boundaries — critical skills they’ll need throughout their lives to protect their health, advocate for themselves, have healthy relationships, and decide their futures.
On Sex Education in the United States
- “It’s important to understand that there’s no ‘typical’ sex ed in the U.S. because the country doesn’t have a national program. There’s uneven funding and inconsistency across programs, and what’s available to young people depends on where they live. That variation leads to inequities in the information that’s presented and the skills students learn — and that’s harmful.”
- “My dream for a nationwide framework would include better-funded sex education, implemented by trained sex educators, that meets the needs of all young people… Sex education should also be sex-positive, meaning it should be delivered without shame or fear tactics and, instead, center on pleasure. Additionally, young people need to be able to see themselves in their sex education, so it’s critical that programs are LGBTQ+-inclusive, culturally congruent, culturally responsive, and anti-racist.”
On the Benefits of K-12 Sex Education
- “Research shows that sex education has a positive impact on young people’s health and behaviors…Teaching folks about their bodies, that they have the right to tell others not to touch them, and how to identify a trusted adult, are all critical to helping them find their voice so they can protect themselves against coercion. For example, I’m the parent of an 8-year-old. When she was a toddler, people loved to hug her, but I didn’t make her hug anyone. Think about it: Your great auntie will come over, and you know her, but your kid might not know them from a can of paint. So I would tell my child, ‘You can wave hello. You don’t have to hug them.’ She chose to embrace some people and wave at others. I didn’t force her to have her body touched when she didn’t want it. And I hope that lesson will serve as a foundation for when she grows up. That’s not sexualizing my toddler, that’s just a foundational lesson she should know: If you don’t want to hug someone, you don’t have to.”
On Washington State’s Referendum 90 and Advocating for Better Sex Education
- “It’s the first time that a statewide sex education mandate will appear on a ballot. In terms of the future of sex education, Referendum 90 includes programs for younger elementary school grades. It’s unique because it establishes a floor for age-appropriate social and emotional education by teaching young people how to identify and manage feelings, and how to communicate with friends. That’s a direction the entire country should be moving toward.”
- “Change for sex education happens at the local grassroots level. There’s a real opportunity for adults, parents, guardians, and community members to make their voices heard. When these caretakers make demands on behalf of young people, school boards listen. It’s not just about adults driving change, though. The current generation of young people gives me so much hope for the future — and given our current socio-political environment, that’s saying something!”
- “Elected officials have a responsibility to not only speak up but to take actions that will protect and increase access to sex education and sexual and reproductive health care across the country…. caring adults across the country know that young people have the right to medically accurate, evidence-informed, inclusive sex ed and sexual health services. They have the right to develop and use these skills to uplift and protect their health, care for their bodies, access the care they need, and build their futures.”