Why Sex Ed Matters in a Post-Roe America

Drawing of young couple sitting on the bed talking about safe sex

Verywell / Nez Riaz

Key Takeaways

  • On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
  • Only 17 states in America require medically-accurate sex education.
  • Comprehensive sex education provides teenagers with an increased ability to make safe, healthy choices moving forward.

There is no getting around it: the condition of sex education in the United States is abysmal. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 17 states require medically-accurate education. Yes, you read that right: Sex education teachers in 33 states do not have an obligation to provide medically-accurate information to students.

Somehow it gets worse. At 38, over double the number of states requiring factual teachings have mandatory abstinence-only education, a method proven ineffective and dangerous.

Furthermore, only ten states require open, inclusive discussion around LGBTQ+ people and their subsequent relationships. Whereas six states actively forbid the discussion of LGBTQ+ identities and, in some cases, are required to position them with negative connotations. 

The Problem With Minimal or Abstinence-Only Sex Education 

It should be common sense that minimal sex education or abstinence-only teachings do not stop teenagers from having sex, they only strip them of easy access to the resources and knowledge required for it to be safe, respectful, and enjoyable.

“Research has shown that teens who receive comprehensive sex ed and teens who receive abstinence-only or no sex education engage in sexual activity at the same frequency,” says Dr. Katie Schubert, LMHC, a certified sex therapist.

“This means teens who receive abstinence-only or no sex education are engaging in sexual activity without any education on contraceptives, sexual health, or what healthy communication with a partner looks like.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "the United States has one of the highest rates of teen birth of all other industrialized countries." Yet, abstinence-only education—which is linked with higher rates of teenage pregnancies—continues to be peddled by many government and advocacy workers as the only solution.

“A lack of sexual education puts young people at a high risk for sexually-transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies,” says Dr. Mellissa Withers, PhD, MHS, an associate clinical professor of preventive medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine and director of the Global Health Program of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities. “Some of these have very serious repercussions that will impact them for the rest of their lives, such as cervical cancer, infertility, and HIV-AIDS.” 

Katie Schubert, PhD, LMHC

Research has shown that teens who receive comprehensive sex ed and teens who receive abstinence only or no sex education engage in sexual activity at the same frequency,

— Katie Schubert, PhD, LMHC

There are a tremendous number of dangers associated with this complete lack of knowledge for teenagers, one that is no fault of their own. According to Dr. Tara Suwinyattichaiporn, a sexual communication professor at Cal State Fullerton, the repercussions also include negative sexual experiences, underdeveloped sexual agency, low sexual self-esteem, and sexual anxiety. 

While these points are undeniably possible even with the best sexual education, they are far less likely to occur or to leave someone feeling alone in experiencing them. The absence of quality sexual education removes a necessary space to “ask questions in a comfortable, safe and non-judgmental zone,” says Dr. Debra Laino, a board certified clinical sexologist and relationship therapist.

Roe v. Wade’s Overturn Increased The Danger of Poor Sex Education 

The dangers of poor sexual education have always existed, but recent events have made them even more challenging. On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving abortion laws up to the states. 

The states most likely to ban or severely limit abortions are also the ones without or fighting against proper sex education, explains Suwinyattichaiporn. Instead, they choose to go the abstinence-only education route and pretend this will stop teenagers from having sex or needing an abortion. This forces them to find education through social media (which may not be accurate) or other accredited sources. 

“As a society, we’ve lost all common sense on how to handle anything having to do with sex or sexual bodies,” says Schubert. “If America’s objective is to reduce the amount of abortions occurring within our county, we must be offering quality comprehensive sex education and offering easy access to contraceptives.” 

The Benefits of Proper Sex Education

Thankfully there is a very clear, obvious solution (in addition to allowing people to have agency over their bodies and get abortions): proper, comprehensive, and inclusive sexual education.

It provides teenagers with the knowledge they need to have safe, enjoyable sexual encounters if they choose to as a teenager and also into adulthood. It also helps break down the awkwardness that can come from talking about sex, as well as the stigmas around it.

As Laino states, “Having open conversations about it is a great way to desensitize as well as obviously learn about a topic that for so many years has been left in the dark.”

Debra Laino, PhD

Having open conversations about it is a great way to desensitize as well as obviously learn about a topic that for so many years has been left in the dark.

— Debra Laino, PhD

It also provides teenagers with a comprehensive understanding of their bodies, what they can do, and also how to set boundaries around them.

“It can help young people appreciate that they control their bodies and can help them learn to advocate for their needs and wishes,” says Withers. “In addition, studies show that comprehensive sexual education can also lead to more equitable gender views, and can help promote values such as mutual respect.”

Many teenagers will choose to have sex, regardless of the level of education they receive around it. Why shouldn’t it be the most accurate, detailed, and non-judgemental it can be? 

What This Means For You

It hurts teenagers when they don't have access to comprehensive sexual education."Kids have sex. We must give them the information they need to make healthy, safe, and happy choices," says Schubert. "It’s our role as parents, caregivers, and members of society. Ignoring or legislating the issue won’t make it go away.”

2 Sources
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  1. Guttmacher Institute. Sex and HIV education.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teen pregnancy.