Washington Watch

Sex education remains active battleground

By Adam Sonfield
Senior Public Policy Associate
Guttmacher Institute
Washington, DC

The trend over the past several years toward more progressive federal and state sex education policymaking hit something of a wall in 2011. Proponents of education exclusively promoting abstinence outside of marriage made modest gains in reviving their cause. There is every reason to expect the issue of sex education to remain contentious in the near future; the longer-term outlook depends heavily on the results of the 2012 elections.

In 2009 and 2010, policymakers and advocates supportive of comprehensive sex education made major progress at the federal level. After more than a decade of federal emphasis on rigid "abstinence-only" education, funding for those programs was slashed substantially, highlighted by the elimination in FY 2010 of the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) program.1 That program provided grants to local organizations adhering to an eight-point definition of "abstinence education" that required teaching, among other things, that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity" and that "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."2

Instead, two new programs have been implemented under the Obama administration: the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI) and the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), which together provide more than $180 million per year for evidence-based, medically accurate and age-appropriate programs that address teen pregnancy and its underpinnings through a more comprehensive approach.1

In 2011, funding for TPPI absorbed only marginal cuts, in line with those for most other federal programs, as policymakers turned their focus to the federal deficit. Yet, conservatives managed to secure $5 million in new funds for abstinence education grants tied to the restrictive eight-point definition.3 Although that amount pales in comparison to CBAE's allotment at the height of its run, proponents and opponents of abstinence-only education believe it could open the door to greater amounts in the future.

At the state level, similarly, the trend in the latter half of the last decade had been a shift toward policies supporting medically accurate and more comprehensive sex education, with seven states (Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin) enacting laws on that front between 2007 and 2010.4 In 2011, after the previous year's elections resulted in a conservative legislative and gubernatorial shift in many states, no further progress was made. Instead, two states enacted laws promoting a focus on abstinence: North Dakota required health education classes to include information on the benefits of abstinence outside of marriage, and Mississippi, which has long mandated abstinence education, required school districts to receive specific permission from the state before teaching other subjects, such as contraception.

All told, state policies on sex education and HIV education are decidedly mixed. Thirty-seven states require abstinence to be covered whenever sex education is taught, with 18 states requiring students to be taught the importance of engaging in sexual activity only within marriage.5 By contrast, 18 states and the District of Columbia require sex education to include information on contraception, 13 states require sex and HIV education to be medically accurate, and 27 states and the District of Columbia require such instruction to be age appropriate.

Nevertheless, statewide policies do not adequately depict the reality in schools, as much depends on the policies of specific districts and schools and what is taught by individual teachers. Proponents of comprehensive sex education are hoping for new progress on that front with the January 2012 release of the National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K-12.6 The new standards were developed by a consortium of groups focused on health and sex education, including the American Association of Health Education, the American School Health Association, the National Education Association Health Information Network, the Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education, and the Future of Sex Education Initiative.

The standards are designed to delineate for teachers, schools, districts, and state education agencies the minimum essential content and skills for sex education, given current conditions of limited time and resources devoted to the subject. They echo the federal TPPI and PREP programs in emphasizing that the education be evidence-based, medically accurate, and age-appropriate.

Specifically, the standards provide performance indicators, which are the knowledge and skills students should have by the end of grades two, five, eight and 12, in seven key areas: anatomy and physiology, puberty and adolescent development, identity, pregnancy and reproduction, sexually transmitted infections and HIV, healthy relationships, and personal safety. As just a few examples, on the topic of pregnancy and reproduction, students are expected to be able to "describe the process of human reproduction" by the end of fifth grade; to "explain the health benefits, risks, and effectiveness rates of various methods of contraception, including abstinence and condoms" by the end of eighth grade; and to "analyze internal and external influences on decisions about pregnancy options" by the end of 12th grade.


  1. Boonstra HD. Sex education: another big step forward — and a step back, Guttmacher Policy Review 2010; 13(2):27-28.
  2. Sec. 510(b)(2)(A)–(H) of the Social Security Act.
  3. P.L. 112-74, Dec. 23, 2011.
  4. Guttmacher Institute. Laws affecting reproductive health and rights: state policy review, 2007-2011 editions. Accessed at http://www.guttmacher.org.
  5. Guttmacher Institute. Sex and HIV education. State Policies in Brief (as of January 1, 2012), 2012. Accessed at http://www.guttmacher.org/statecenter/spibs/spib_SE.pdf.
  6. American Association of Health Education, et al. National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K-12, 2012. Accessed at http://www.futureofsexeducation.org/documents/josh-fose-standards-web.pdf