Decisions about sex education are 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.
However, only 29 states and the District of Columbia have laws that mandate sex education, and even in those states there’s no guarantee that the sex education provided is of high quality, or covers the topics young people need to learn about to stay healthy. 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 is not) 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, if at all, and how much educators must stress abstinence.
Sometimes state and local requirements on sex education are helpful. For example, 15 states require instruction to be medically accurate, and 26 states and the District of Columbia require that it be age-appropriate. 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.
Whether or not sex education is LGBTQ-inclusive is also left up to state and local governments to decide.
Only 9 states currently require discussion of LGBTQ identities and relationships to be inclusive and affirming
7 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 are not 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, quality sex education (and Planned Parenthood’s role in providing it) is constantly under attack. Legislators have used a variety of tactics to limit access to sex education, promote conservative values, and anti-abortion messages through sex education, and push Planned Parenthood sex educators out of schools. Here are just a couple of examples of laws trying to stop Planned Parenthood from teaching sex education:
Oklahoma has a law that requires the state’s health department and local schools to provide educational materials to the public that “clearly and consistently teach that abortion kills a living human being.”
Louisiana and Tennessee have laws that prohibit organizations who provide abortions from providing sex education in 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.