We, Ndalo L.A. Mwamba and Crow Delavan, are two Seattle students who see that Washington’s approach to school sex education has gaps and flaws. We think that everyone should receive comprehensive sex ed that prepares them with the resources and information they will need later in life.
Ndalo: Washington passed a law in 2020 requiring all public schools, beginning in the 2022-23 school year, to “provide comprehensive sexual education to each student.” Schools must start with social-emotional learning instruction for children in grades K-3. Starting in grade four, students must be taught sex ed multiple times until their senior year. I commend Washington state for being one of only 30 states that require this course.
I think the law is a great start compared to where we were a few years ago. But like any system, it can be strengthened to provide a safe space for every K-12 student.
I’ve had my own poor experience with the class. I also believe that when children start learning about consensual sex, sexual assault will occur less because clear boundaries will be drawn. When I say sex ed, I do not mean teaching sex with the intention of children participating in it at a young age, but teaching sex ed so that children, who then become adults, will clearly understand the repercussions of their actions because they will be armed with knowledge.
Crow: For me, as a high school student, sex and health education is one of the most important classes taught in schools because basically every student will end up using the information. There is so much good that could come out of a more inclusive and comprehensive sex ed curriculum, but also so much harm that can happen with an exclusive and limited one.
Washington is further ahead than many states in consent education. The state defines consent as “an agreement made or permission given without coercion, such as without force, threats, manipulation, or intimidation.” State health standards include education around setting boundaries, unwanted touch, and other topics related to consent as early as kindergarten. Consent is multifaceted and can take many different forms, but it is not often portrayed in the media. Because of this, many students have misconceptions of what consent is and what relationships ought to look like, according to some researchers on the subject.
Kids can and should be learning to use consent as early as kindergarten, such as asking friends before hugging them. As children grow, consent can be taught in the context of all kinds and aspects of relationships.
Ndalo: The law also lists abstinence as one of the contraceptives to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and limit unexpected pregnancies. While I understand it is one of many methods, I believe teaching abstinence, also known as “sexual risk avoidance,” is not a realistic method to teach. Research shows that among adolescents, “intentions to abstain from sexuality often fail.” Adolescence lasts until the age of 26, at least according to Dr. Daniel Siegel, who wrote “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.” This means that a teenager’s prefrontal cortex (where the processing of actions occurs) has not fully developed and that teenagers are mostly thinking with their amygdala, which is the part of the brain that regulates emotions. When you’re taught not to have sex for the sake of it and then you’re already not processing information fully, your emotions will likely rule you. I would rather accept that some teens will indulge the act of sex and provide them with the tools to prevent negative repercussions than have them participate in the act and not have any tools to deal with their actions.
Crow: Sex ed often excludes any education or discussion about sexual pleasure, even though many students across the country believe it should be included. Most sex ed classes talk about sex through the lens of prevention: preventing pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, or other unwanted consequences. But research shows that talking about pleasure in sex ed classes can increase condom use. Lessons and conversations on sexual pleasure could also include basic education on masturbation, which is a safe way to experience sexual pleasure (without risk of STDs or pregnancy).
Another thing often not mentioned in sex ed classes is porn. The problem: Porn is very unrealistic, and often an unhealthy portrayal of sex and of what bodies should look like, and many students view it as the standard for sex. Pornography has been linked to more internalized body ideals and gender roles. Sex education in schools could give students tools to differentiate between porn and reality.
One of the biggest gaps in sex education in schools is LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed. Although openly queer students are a minority in most schools, queer sex ed is useful for everyone. I attended a trans sex ed workshop at my school and I was both excited to finally have a health class with information helpful to me and disappointed that this kind of inclusive education wasn’t given to everyone. Everyone is affected by LGBTQ issues, either directly or indirectly, so giving passive recognition to queer and trans people in sex ed classes is not enough.
Ndalo: While I do appreciate the strides that the state of Washington has made, there are a few things I find concerning. Teaching sex ed once in a year isn’t enough. Sex ed classes should be required throughout the school year if students are expected to retain the lessons they’ve been taught.
I hope this article reaches everyone on both sides of this issue and helps them understand that this course is not a requirement to encourage students to have sex, but to educate them on the outcomes of sex. My dream is that sex ed becomes more purposeful and focused so that sexual assault nationwide decreases. When I learned that a third of women in the world have reported being assaulted at least once, it made me feel that this world is failing women. Comprehensive sex ed should teach consent, help students recognize the beginning of abusive relationships, and teach children how to go through the world being better people. From kindergarten to their senior year of high school, they should have the tools to keep themselves safe, and that is what should matter above all else.
Crow: I don’t want anyone to be afraid of the comprehensive sex ed we think is needed under Washington’s law. I want students to feel comfortable learning about their own health, and I want parents and teachers to understand why truly comprehensive and accurate sex ed is important. We aren’t protected when information is withheld from us. We’re safest when we have all the facts and tools we could need.