The good news is that even in states that restrict sex education, concepts of fairness, dignity and respect — as well as consent and bodily integrity (that we each have the right to say what we do with our own bodies) — are regularly taught in early grades without controversy. They are just not recognized as sex education. Indeed, some of the most effective sex education outcomes we found from elementary through high school were achieved not just in traditional health or sex education classrooms, but in English, social studies, physical education, music and art classes.
Even in states hostile to abortion, it is possible to promote school-based instruction that meets the National Sex Education Standards, which are research-based guidelines that one of us, Dr. Goldfarb, initially helped develop for the core content and skills needed for effective K-12 sex education. Federal legislation has been proposed that would support high-quality sex education and impede federal funding for abstinence-only programming. (Further, anyone can review in-depth profiles of the sex education environments in their own states, including up-to-date information on legislative and advocacy efforts to secure comprehensive sex education.)
Because sex education is often under local control, even in states with more progressive policies, instruction can fall short, especially on highly politicized topics like abortion. It is imperative to dispel the misinformation young people are exposed to about the dangers of abortion. Contrary to what many students are taught, someone is far more likely to die from giving birth than from a legal abortion. And we need to normalize the procedure for young people, since around one in four women and many trans and nonbinary people have an abortion in their lifetimes.
For many young people, especially those whose sex education is lacking, the internet becomes a primary source of sexual health information. While social media platforms like TikTok are not a sufficient substitute for classroom-based learning, a growing number of sex educators and health care providers are turning to them. Websites such as Amaze.org, PlannedParenthood.org, Scarleteen.com and Sexetc.org are filled with accessible, accurate and developmentally and age-appropriate information for young people.
In the post-Roe era, we must fight state by state, district by district, to fend off attacks on sex education based on falsehoods and fear. Community members must speak up for medically accurate sex education at the local level, where curriculum decisions are often driven by who shows up at public meetings and who sits on the school board.