U.S. Schools Are Doing a Remarkably Terrible Job Teaching Sex Ed


A new study from the Centers for Disease Control shows that middle and high schools in the United States are doing an almost universally terrible job teaching sex ed. Schools are especially struggling with teaching students how to get and use condoms; teenagers are less likely to use one today than they were a decade ago.

The CDC study, which we saw via NPR, is based on the agency’s National School Health Profiles, surveys conducted at U.S. schools every two years. The study, which you can read in full here, asks middle and high schools whether they’re teaching 16 recommended sex ed topics, ranging from how you get pregnant, how HIV and other STIs are spread, the efficacy of condoms, how to use them, and creating “healthy, respectful” relationships. Surprise: most schools aren’t teaching all, or even some, of those things.

The thing that sex ed programs are most likely to point out, by far, are the “benefits of being sexually abstinent,” as the CDC puts it. That’s because 37 states require that abstinence information be provided, while 25 states specifically say that it must be “stressed” or presented as the best option. (As strict abstinence-only models have fallen out of favor, a lot of states, especially more conservative ones, teach “abstinence-plus,” which encourages the no-sex approach but also teaches condom use and “partner reduction,” as the textbooks put it.)

And yet one of the most basic aspects of sex ed, how to correctly use a condom, is one of the least likely to be taught. The CDC found an almost comically wide range: “from 4.7% to 54.7% across states (median: 23.3%) and from 5.9% to 94.3% across large urban school districts (median: 40.8%).”

Again, that is by design: in some states, specifically the abstinence “stressing” ones, a condom demonstration is actually illegal. As Mother Jones pointed out earlier this year, clever teachers who’d like their kids safe and disease-free are figuring out a way around that one too:

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