Sex-ed in America is dangerously bad -- here's how we can fix it

For being one of the most well-educated countries on Earth, the US is surprisingly lousy at teaching kids how babies are made.

While other countries like Norway and Sweden are using vacuum cleaners to demonstrate getting hickeys, the US prefers to use roundabout metaphors that sidestep any real talk about sexuality.

What gets lost in that fear of being explicit is the actual education, which kids need not only to make responsible decisions, but also to build healthy attitudes toward sex.

“American sex ed has different goals than sex ed in Europe,” says Jonathan Zimmerman, NYU professor of education and history and author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education.” “The goal of sex ed in the United States has always been to prevent negative outcomes, specifically unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Whether it’s actually done that or not, we don’t know.”

At present, only 22 states mandate sexual education in the US, and only 13 require the information to be medically accurate. As a result, Zimmerman says, kids receive only a handful of hours of actual education during adolescence. Isolating the impact of that small amount of time on behaviour is, at least from a social science perspective, impossible.

We have our puritanical values to thank for this squeamishness.

Even though we’re hundreds of years removed from those early immigrants, schools are slapped on the wrist for hanging educational posters on their classroom doors, and parents cry pornography if pictures of anatomy are too graphic.

Countries without this history tend not to shy away from sex ed, research suggests. 

One study conducted in 2012 found kids from the US performed worse than kids from England, the Netherlands, and Sweden when asked to explain how conception and childbirth worked. Researchers concluded that systemic differences in how countries structured their sex ed might influence kids’ level of understanding.

The US system fails largely because it treats sex as a taboo that can only be discussed after it has been properly defanged, usually with fun props. More progressive countries still use these props, but for a different end.

Consider Norway’s public broadcasting program, “Newton,” hosted by Line Jansrud.

In the span of only a few minutes, Jansrud explains to her viewers how penetration works using an actual dildo on the lower half of a mannequin, demonstrates where the clitoris is and how to stimulate it, and artfully instructs students how to French kiss a tomato. 

Like so.

Then there’s Sweden’s approach, which uses animated penises and tampons to teach kids about sex.

American viewers might cringe at how direct those demonstrations are, but being direct in sex ed is more important than being inoffensive.  The image of a grown woman tonguing a raw tomato is, at the very least, memorable.

Zimmerman wants more than that, though. As he argues in “Too Hot to Handle,” the best approach for improving American sex ed is to lower, not raise, the expectations we put on public schools. It’s a grave mistake, he says, to assume kids learn about sex from their teachers. They learn from their peers and popular culture — they always have.

So we should reach them there.

“Our best bet at this point is to fight fire with fire,” he says, by giving kids information through the same screens they use to text and tweet.

Planned Parenthood has had a version of this service in place since 2011, called In Case You’re Curious (ICYC). If kids have burning questions about sex and puberty, they can text Planned Parenthood, and a representative will reply with an answer.

These services gain access to kids’ inner curiosities in ways public schools just can’t, Zimmerman says. The greatest of which is to ensure anonymity: Rather than choose between asking an embarrassing question in class or staying ignorant, kids can silently amass the knowledge that’s relevant to them.

Though Zimmerman emphasises public school sex ed is still vitally important, the best way to help them is to give them information in the palms of their hands.

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