New Recommended Guidelines Could Make Sex Ed Not Completely Terrible

A coalition of groups concerned with health and education have released a new set of recommended guidelines for comprehensive sexual education in public schools, and while their ideas are still very much in the “recommended guidelines” stage rather than being reality, they’re still pretty revolutionary. Noting that current standards for sexual education are “inconsistent” and that studies have shown that sex ed in high school is often ineffective because students have already formed their own opinions, their recommendations call for “minimum standards that schools can use to formulate school curriculums for each age level.” For instance:

By the end of second grade, the guidelines say students should use the correct body part names for the male and female anatomy, and also understand that all living things reproduce and that all people have the right to not be touched if they don’t want to be. They also say young elementary school kids should be able to identity different kinds of family structures and explain why bullying and teasing are wrong… by the end of fifth grade, the guidelines say students should be able to define sexual harassment and abuse.

When they leave middle school, they should be able to differentiate between gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, according to the guidelines. And the say they should be able to explain why a rape victim is not at fault, know about bullying and dating violence and describe the signs and impacts of sexually transmitted diseases. It calls for those leaving eighth grade to also be able to evaluate the effectiveness of abstinence, condoms and other “safer sex methods” and know how emergency contraception works. Many of these issues the groups encouraged to be further addressed in high school as well.


One of the more remarkable things about these guidelines is that they’re designed to address bullying, especially as relates to sexual orientation and gender identity. There may not be a wealth of studies that prove it yet, but it seems entirely possible that a class full of kids who know the difference between gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation by the time they’re in ninth grade will be less likely to torment a classmate who wears eyeliner by calling him a “queer.” In general, education that addresses and explains difference in a nonjudgmental way seems like it will much better equip children to treat each other compassionately than an education which hopes that if it never mentions difference or diversity, no one will notice it’s there.

Of course, these guidelines have drawn criticism, and since they’re nonbinding and are ultimately only recommendations, schools which are committed to abstinence-only education or who refuse to acknowledge any problems with bullying probably won’t adopt them. Predictably, the executive director of the National Education Abstinence Association, has made a statement that  “[controversial] topics are best reserved for conversations between parent and child, not in the classroom.” Many parents, and many school administrators, seem likely to agree with her.

The thing is, though, that none of the recommended minimum standards of knowledge seem particularly controversial. Is it controversial to tell a child that bullying and teasing are wrong, or that all people have the right to not be touched if they don’t want to be? Is it really controversial that gender identity and sexual orientation is different? I almost hesitate to ask because someone will inevitably agree, but is the idea that survivors of rape are not at fault for being raped really controversial? 

It seems like what may actually be controversial about these guidelines is that they’re based on the premise that students are human beings who can be trusted to make choices. Although Valerie Huber of the National Education Abstinence Association said that “This should be a program about health, rather than agendas that have nothing to do with optimal sexual health decision-making,” that’s actually exactly what this is; educating children about their own bodies and the bodies of others, and the possible outcomes, both good and bad, of sexual activity — so that they can then go on to make their own decisions about what they do and don’t want to partake in.

Abstinence-only education operates on the idea that if kids are presented with only one choice, they’ll never make a “bad” one; never mind that studies have never shown that approach to actually work. Conservatives and homophobes use the same mistaken thinking about discussing gay issues in schools, arguing that inclusive education is “promoting” homosexuality — as if being kept in the dark about homosexuality would ensure that all students turned out straight. The point of these guidelines seems to be, more than anything else, about informing students to make their own choices, which is precisely what “optimal sexual health decision-making” requires. And for queer students, it’s an absolute necessity; how can you make optimal decisions about your sexual health if you’ve been taught that your sexuality doesn’t exist?

At the root of the new recommended guidelines for sex ed is the idea of treating students with respect, and believing that they deserve to know at least as much about their own bodies, sexuality, and sexual rights as they do about the Cold War. (And if students are queer or trans, deserve to know that they exist, and also have rights.) And regardless of how conservative you are or what “values” you care about for your children, there shouldn’t be anything controversial about that.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!


Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. “It seems like what may actually be controversial about these guidelines is that they’re based on the premise that students are human beings who can be trusted to make choices.”


    I wish this would actually have an impact on the schools that really need it.

  2. THIS. None of my teachers has EVER talked about gender identity and sexual orientation in middle or high school. We did have sex ed, but it was entirely focused on reproduction. I seem to remember some victim-blaming date rape lessons somewhere, too. And anti-bullying campaigns (at least the ones run by administration) are always so heterocentric – nothing about the kids that really need protection from bullies. :(

  3. As someone who recently finished high school sex ed, I almost got failed for answering the question “What is the only 100% way to not get pregnant” by saying “Have sex with girls!”
    This would have made that whole thing a lot awesomer, and I hope my kids get to have something like this.

    • HAHAHAHAHAHAH I actually laughed out loud. I definitely wish I would have said something like that during sex ed.

  4. The point that makes me most excited is the gender/orientation education, because I got none of that even though I live in a fairly liberal city. I didn’t understand the difference between sex and gender until university, when I sought out a class about gender.

  5. Let’s see… As a kid in Year 5 (4th grade), we watched a video about sex. I remember a bit where it said “some boys love boys, and some girls love girls, and that’s okay”, and then proceeded not to mention anything else about gayness to my tiny pansexual mind. But it seems like a good start. I have never at school been taught about gender identity or sexual orientation, but neither have I been taught abstinence only. Huzzah for the UK!

  6. All we were told is how reproduction occurs, and that we should never ever have sex. Or you will get pregnant, and die.

  7. Our sex ed was very heterocentric, though EXTREMELY informative. (I had to put a condom on a plastic dick, you guys. Put me off for life.)
    I think the issue with sex ed is parents don’t want to ‘sexualise’ their children too early, so to some, actively teaching Jimmy that it’s okay if he loves Johnny in the same way that society dictates he is meant to love Jane is WRONG because that’s teaching them about SEXUALITY which has the word SEX in it and therefore can’t be spoken about until the kid is 16.

  8. I remember two things from sex ed:
    1) The teacher drew a circle on the board and asked if anyone knew what it was. We guessed circle and zero and the letter O, but she said no to each one. Then answered, “my anus,” and I didn’t know what to do with that situation.
    2) The teacher told us all about condoms, and right after explaining how they can break, this kid yelled “IT BROKE!” and ran out of the room. We later found out that he was chewing on a pen and the ink spewed in his mouth.

  9. Is there any actual study on the impact of comprehensive sex ed programs? I mean, those programs DO exist, at least in other coutries than the US or in private schools. I know that’s not the perfect tool to predict what would happen if US public schools started to follow those guidelines, but at least it’d give someidea. So why is that kind of data so hard to find?

    And since it’s so cool to talk about yourself, I’ll share a little bit of my life with you guys.
    I’m not from the US, and I’ve been in some kind of alternative school (still on public funds though), where kids are taught respect from kindergarten. I’ve been taught sex ed in a very similar way to what’s in the guidelines. By that I mean that it started early (we saw condoms for the first time like in third grade…), and it was comprehensive. We’ve been taught about body parts, basic technical knowledge about reproduction and STDs before sixth grade, as well as various family structures. We visited the center for planned parenthood in 7th grade, and relationships-related stuffs as well as actual “how to have intercourse” teaching was in 8th grade. As I’ve been taught, sex ed was mainly before 8th grade.
    After that point, the information was at our disposal, but there were no more sex ed specific times. Doesn’t mean we didn’t talk about sex, just that the sex-related knowledge was dispensed when it was relevant to our courses (i.e. biology, or social sciences).

    And guess what? Kids at my school become sexually active much LATER than average. At least when I was there, which isn’t so long ago, first kisses happened around 9th grade for the more precocious, but most kids still never had had a gilrfriend or boyfriend by 11th grade. Those kids take relationships very seriously. Maybe a little too seriously, now that I think about it.
    Even better? I don’t recall, in the whole time I spent there, anyone being bullied because they were gay. One of our teachers was openly gay, and still, he was one of the most respected teachers of the school. Gay, to us, was just a fact, not an insult. “Brown hair” is not an insult, nor is “gay”.

    By the time we reach 10th grade, there’s not really any kind of bullying left. Doesn’t mean everyone’s happy and lives in a rainbow dreamy world with sparkly unicorns – I myself have been an outcast for my entire schooling and being alone can be pretty hard at times – but there’s no harassment of any kind. At worst, two people who don’t like each other will just ignore each other.

    I know it can’t immediately compare, that the people at my school don’t have the same background you’d find in the average european school, not to say in the US’s average public school. But there’s got to be something to take out of it.
    People all over the place tried to teach comprehensive sex ed to kids. I have here one example that works faily well, there probably is others. So why do we never hear about that when there’s a debate on sex ed reform?

    • With the thought of my future kids (many years down the road) in mine, I would like to know the area where you live at. I’m sick of “Don’t have sex or you’ll get pregnant and die”(Mean Girls reference!) type of teaching in the U.S.

      • Decroly school, Belgium. ^^
        It’s an alternative school, definitely. So if you’re looking for something similar, I’d reckon you have a look at alternative education and pedagogy in your area, like Freinet schools or maybe waldorf (although I’m not familiar with that last one). I guess they have a similar approach to sex ed.

  10. The public schools I attended (in Australia) were always very comprehensive about heterosexual sex, STDs, sexual assault, and other such things. They never delved into sexual orientation or gender identity. Oprah taught me all about it though.

    • The reason I know everything I know about sex was from the Internet and my guy friends sex ed (or as they called it INTER-RELLATE) was like a refresher course though I remember nothing about anything other than heterosexuality they did have this weird game which was like build up tips except instead of being in you had herpes. Also the teachers PowerPoint kept showing up with greek writing instead of English (in aus btw) (the teacher didn’t speak Greek)

  11. My sex ed was pretty comprehensive when it came to heterosexual sex/reproduction and STDs also, and this was at a public school in the US in the early 1990s. There was no mention of gender identity or sexual orientation, but I knew all about contraception, STDs, AIDS, etc by the time I finished 8th grade. The Bush administration really effed things up as far as sex ed in this country goes.

  12. Wow, these guidelines kind of sound like a dream come true.
    Sex ed at my schools wasn’t great (abstinence-only, etc.), EXCEPT for the teacher I had freshman year. She gave us all condoms and showed us how to put a condom on a banana and stuff like that, so she was pretty awesome. Sadly, I think she is the only teacher at my high school who does anything like that. Still, the fact that she did that and was allowed to do that was great.

  13. Reading this made me realize/remember that I wasn’t comfortable using the words “penis” and “vagina” outright until late high school because I thought they were dirty words. That’s fucked up in my opinion.

  14. Kids absolutely need to know the correct words for their body parts, so if someone’s touching them, they can properly say where, without using cutesy nicknames that can be misunderstood by someone else.

    I have always found it so weird that so many people who preach ‘abstinence-only’ sex ed, are also the ones who belong to a faith that includes a pregnant virgin.

  15. Honestly something has to change. When I was in 8th grade it was a common thought among my peers that drinking Malta hot would cause an abortion. For those not in the know Malta is a nonalcoholic malt beverage like a very stout but sweet nonalcoholic beer. When a friend of mine got pregnant we were pretty much convinced that it’s because she must have let the Malta cool down too much before drinking it.

  16. I kind of wish we had the whole ‘condom on a banana’ thing. Our sex ed was in 11th grade and was mostly a graphic slideshow of what happens to your genitals when you get different STDs.

    When you treat teens like responsible adults who are capable of making their own decisions, then you give them the opportunity to rise to the challenge of making responsible, informed decisions about their lives.

    • All I remember from high school sex ed is watching an STD slideshow. Gross.

      All I remember from middle school sex ed is how our teacher assigned us partners and then make up a skit about how we would say no to sex. My partner decided the setting of our skit should be the Chuck E Cheese ball pit.

      In a nutshell, all I ever learned in sex ed was what STDs look like and how to not have sex at Chuck E Cheese. Thank you, public education.

      • Y’know, if people were to have sex at Chuck E Cheese, I’d imagine it would be in the ball pit.

  17. can you fix the link? it doesn’t work and I’d really like to read it.

    I went to a catholic school in australia, we got this is a penis and this is a vagina and then at the end of year 12 we got a pamphlet explaining why we should save ourself for marriage.

  18. In my house we only called are genitals Private Parts and PPs for short. I knew about balls and dicks because most of my cousins were boys and they liked to talk about their genitals. But I didn’t know the names for female genitalia. I didn’t equate PP with vagina until highschool, and though I had heard the words clitoris and vulva in sex ed in middle and high school, I didn’t know which parts were which until college.

    When I was in second grade I was sitting next to this boy during drawing time. He took a purple marker and started drawing squiggly lines on his arms, and said “I’m a vagina.” I thought he said “ma’china,” like a contraction for “made in China,” like those labels on toys and stuff. So I started drawing squiggly lines on my arms and saying “I’m a ma’china, I’m a ma’china.” Anyway, the teacher heard us and very seriously told us to stop and took the markers away. A few days later we had a parent-teacher conference about the incident, and I had no idea why I was in trouble. They told me that I had said and done something inappropriate. I told them I didn’t see anything wrong with saying I’m a “ma’china,” like the toys you get from happy meals. I thought I had clearly said it was like “made in China,” but shorter. They obviously didn’t understand. My mom shook her head dismally and said “I can’t believe it’s starting already.” When we got home I asked her what I had said that was wrong, and what the word that sounded like “ma’china” was, and she told me about reproduction. All I heard though, was “The female and the male in order to ‘big word’ must connect their ‘big word.’ The male takes his penis and sticks it into the woman’s ‘big word’ and shoots ‘big word’ into her ‘big word’ which creates bla bla bla.” In the end I still did not know that my vagina was part of my PP.

Comments are closed.