Leading pediatricians and public health experts in the Journal of Adolescent Health identified key shortcomings in recent sex-education guidelines from the Medical Institute for Sexual Health (MISH) and calls for the adoption of science-based standards for sex education such as the National Sex Education Standards (NSES).
The article “School-based Sex Education in the U.S. at a Crossroads: Taking the Right Path,” analyzes discrepancies between MISH’s K-12 Standards for Optimal Sexual Health (M-SOSH) and the National Sex Education Standards, which have been used in the development of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool.
Unlike NSES, M-SOSH omits key topics such as sexual orientation and gender identity, social determinants of health including poverty, racism and other forms of discrimination, disabilities, reproductive justice, prevention of HIV infection using PrEP therapy, and adolescent health care issues such as adolescent rights and minor consent laws.
Across the country, most recently in Nebraska and Worcester, Mass., opponents of sex education are attacking attempts to include LGBTQ+ students and families, teach medically accurate information, and reflect in sex education students’ real experiences and struggles. Pseudo-science organizations like MISH enable this misinformation and discrimination.
“Sex education should be medically accurate, help young people explore their identity and values, should build strong communication skills, and needs to be geared to the developmental capacity of children and adolescents,” said John S. Santelli, M.D., M.P.H. of the Department of Population and Family Health and Pediatrics at Columbia University.
“In a country that spends billions on sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies each year, the least we can do is to provide young people with the truth about sex, healthy relationships, and how to keep themselves safe,” said Maria Trent, M.D., M.P.H. of the Division of Adolescent/Young Adult Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“Denying our youth science-based, medically accurate, developmentally appropriate comprehensive sex education is akin to throwing them in the deepest ocean without teaching them how to swim,” said David Bell, MD, MPH, president of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine and the medical director of the Young Men’s Clinic, a unique adjunct to New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Family Planning Clinic.
Developed in partnership between sex education organizations including Advocates for Youth, Answer, SIECUS, and more than 40 experts in child and adolescent development, sexuality and public health, the National Sex Education Standards (NSES) provide clear, consistent, and straightforward guidance on the essential content for students in grades K-12.
Key concepts within NSES include the following:
● Information should be medically accurate information, and curricula should include a broad set of topics essential to human sexuality. Medical accuracy means curricula should be based on the weight of scientific evidence and scientific theory, published in peer-reviewed journals, and recognized as accurate, objective, and complete by mainstream professional organizations.
● Opportunities for adolescents to explore their identity and values and the values and beliefs of their family, their religion, their culture, and their community.
● Opportunities to practice the communication, negotiation, decision-making, and assertiveness skills needed to create healthy relationships.
● Sex education should be developmentally appropriate information and geared to the age-appropriate interests and developmental capacity of children and adolescents. For example, while sex education for children should focus on family life, sex education for adolescents needs to focus on their expanding social world including peers, media, and culture.