Decisions about sex education are usually made at the state and local level — no federal laws dictate what sex education should look like or how it should be taught in schools.
Almost every state in the U.S. has some guidance around sex education. Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia require that HIV and/or sex education is covered in school. However, there’s no guarantee that the sex education students get is high quality or covers the topics young people need to learn about to stay healthy.
Of the states that require sex and/or HIV education, fewer than half require it be medically accurate. And more states require sex education to stress abstinence than ensure medical accuracy. Fewer than half of high schools and only a fifth of middle schools are teaching the sexual health topics that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers “essential” for healthy young people. This is unacceptable.
Sex Education Laws Are Decided By State and Local Legislators
Lawmakers in statehouses and city halls are the ones making decisions about what is (and isn’t) taught in school-based sex education. That means they decide whether or not educators can discuss birth control, how educators can talk about LGBTQ+ experiences, and how much educators must stress abstinence.
- While 37 states have laws requiring that abstinence is included in sex education, only 18 states require educators to also share information about birth control.
- Sometimes state and local requirements on sex education are helpful. For example, 18 states require instruction to be medically accurate, and 26 states and the District of Columbia require that it be age-appropriate.
Whether or not sex education is LGBTQ-inclusive is also left up to state and local governments to decide.
- Only ten states require discussion of LGBTQ+ identities and relationships to be inclusive and affirming
- Six southern states either prohibit sex educators from discussing (or even answering questions about) LGBTQ+ identities and relationships, or actually require sex educators to frame LGBTQ+ identities and relationships negatively. These laws further stigmatize LGBTQ+ youth and leave them without the information they need to protect their sexual health, putting them at greater risk for STDs, pregnancy, and unhealthy or abusive relationships.
Here’s what we know for sure: Too many young people aren’t getting the sex education they need and deserve.
While most states have some kind of law or policy about sex education, day-to-day decisions are often left up to individual school districts. This means that students in the same state attending different schools could have totally different sex education experiences.
The Unstable State of Sex Education in the United States
Because sex education laws and policies are developed at the state and local level, sex education is constantly under attack. Politicians have used a variety of tactics to limit access to sex education, promote conservative agendas, and push Planned Parenthood sex educators out of schools.
These restrictive bills are just a way for politicians to block access to sexual and reproductive health information, education, and services — especially from Planned Parenthood.