People in the United States love to consider themselves individualists who don’t follow the crowd – but that doesn’t always mean that we’re leaders in all areas. . In many cases, people from the US still tend to find several aspects of sex and sexuality taboo, but there are a lot of complicated and nuanced reasons why that’s the case.
The United States is not necessarily the most prudish group when it comes to sex, but they are not the most accepting either… not by a long shot!
Studies from Pew Research say that most adults in the US — about 65 percent — are okay with sex between unmarried adults in committed relationships, but overall they are much less accepting of “non-traditional” sexual practices, such as open relationships. About 48 percent say open relationships are never acceptable, while 20 percent say it’s rarely acceptable.
When it comes to finding a potential partner, the same Pew Research study says there are a number of factors that affect that decision, aside from just sexual compatibility. These include: significant age differences, being from different races or ethnicities, or practicing different religions (among others). Sexual attitudes can also be affected by gender identity, political leanings, and cultural practices and beliefs. In short, everything that made us who we are today plays into how we feel about sex and relationships with others now and in the future.
Even more basic, however, is that sex is a primal act, first seen as necessary for procreation to continue the species and — in a distant second place — for pleasure. That primal, animalistic nature of sex makes it easy to brush is aside as something not to be openly talked about, but rather something to be ashamed of. Getting rid of that shame will help to erase the stigmas associated with sex and sexuality.
The Benefits of Sex Education
Sex education at all ages and levels is one of the easiest and best ways to open discussions up about sex and combat stigmas. Perhaps the biggest taboo is associated with masturbation and self love, which is the single best way to learn about the body and what feels good. Masturbation is seen as dirty and a sign of weakness by many people in the US.
According to Planned Parenthood, proper sex education “gives young people the knowledge and skills they need for a lifetime of good sexual health. They learn how to have healthy relationships, make informed decisions about sex, think critically about the world, be a good ally to those who are marginalized, and love themselves for who they are.”
Further, a recent poll by Planned Parenthood shows 93 percent of parents support sex education being taught in middle school, while 96 percent of parents support sex education being taught in high school.
Reduction of Unplanned Pregnancies
Studies have shown that when young people have comprehensive sex education, they are less likely to become pregnant when compared to those who only receive teachings about abstinence. According to a study where 1,719 teens between the ages of 15 and 19 were polled by the University to Washington, teens who did not receive any sex education or received abstinence only education were just as likely to engage in sex as their peers who receive some type of sex education.
The United States ranks first in developed nations for both teen pregnancy rates and sexually transmitted infections. While abstinence only education programs have been the leading sex education program taught for the past decade, studies have shown positive correlations with teenage pregnancy and birth rates.
Decrease In Sexual Violence
Sex education not only teaches young people about STIs, birth control, and pregnancy, it also teaches gender equality, thereby reducing the risk for gender-based violence. How to have healthy sexual relationships is a major theme in sex education, with teachings on healthy ways to express intimacy and affection, how to give and revoke consent, and even how to leave unhealthy relationships.
Decrease in Sexually Transmitted Infections
Proper and complete sex education programs also help to lower cases of sexual transmitted infections among young people. The number of STIs continues to increase in the United States, especially among adolescents and young adults. According to the Guttmacher Institute, cases of chlamydia increased by 15 percent, while cases of gonorrhea increased by 35 percent and syphilis by 50 percent. While young adults and adolescents are reporting the highest numbers of STIs, the Guttmacher Institute says providing better sexual education would help to reduce those numbers.
“Abstinence-only programs not only withhold important information from young people, but can actively harm them,” the Institute says. “This approach sends adolescents the message that sex outside of marriage is shameful or inherently dangerous, perpetuates gender stereotypes, ignores the experiences of LGBTQ youth and promotes a narrow view of an acceptable life course (i.e., marriage, then sex, then parenthood). Further, restricting sex education to a few topics contributes to misinformation and stigma that prevents adolescents and young people from seeking information and care related to STIs.”
Sex Education in the United States
There is no centralized sex education program throughout the United States, and the topics presented in sex education program can differ wildly not only from state to state, but also from school district to school district.
As of 2022, 39 states require sex education and/or HIV education, and 40 states require schools to involve parents in sex education.
Teenage Pregnancy in the United States
The teen birth rate in the United States has been declining since 1991, with the birth rate in 2018 less than half what it was in 2008, according to Pew Research. The downward trend started in the 1990s, and accelerated following the Great Recession in 2007. Teen birth rates were at their highest in 1957, when there were 96.3 per 1000 females ages 15-19, and had dropped to 17.4 births per 1000 in 2018.
The Pew Research Center attributed the decline to a number of factors, including young people ages 15 to 19 having less sex, the increased use of contraception, and better sex education about birth control and pregnancy prevention.
Homosexuality Remains Taboo
To date, most sex education presented to young people focuses on heterosexuality. A national survey found only 4 percent of LGBT young people in middle school and high school had any positive discussion about LGBT people or issues in any of their classes.
The exclusion of homosexual sexuality creates a sense of isolation or even shame, which leads to lower self esteem for LGBT youth. The fallout from omitting or – even worse – teaching negativity in regard to LGBT sexuality can be anything from increased depression levels to attempted suicides.
Sex Education Around the Globe
A 2015 report on Comprehensive Sexuality Education in 48 countries found young people are often denied “even the most basic information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights.” Data from the World Bank shows European countries tend to have the lowest rates of teen pregnancies, attributed to the progressive approach to sexual education in European and Scandinavian countries.
Countries With The Best Sex Education Programs
India: While sex education is a controversial topic in India, the country has a progressive sex education curriculum that includes teachings on gender equality, sexual diversity, and consent. The program also does not default to teaching about biological male and female bodies, but all types of bodies.
Nicaragua: Plan International is a group that is tackling sex education. The group works to educate teen boys about empathy and respect for girls and women. The education program typically runs about 18 months.
The Netherlands and Denmark: These countries are leading the way in sex education. In the Netherlands, sex education starts for children as young as 4 years old. The curriculum is designed to be age appropriate and is meant to encourage respect for all sexual preferences. They are also taught skills to protect against sexual coercion and abuse.
Nigeria: A group called Education as a Vaccine established a program that allows young people to get answers about sex via text, phone calls, or social media apps. The youth can ask and receive information anonymously, which can increase their confidence to be more open.
Sweden: Sweden is the country that started sexual education, all the way back in 1955. The curriculum has changed with the times, but many of the basic tenets have stayed the same. The original focus was on the prevention of unintended pregnancies, while education on prevention of HIV and awareness of homosexuality were added later.
Unfortunately, as long as there are stigmas associated not only with sex and sexuality, but also sex education, there will always be some level of taboo associated with sex. But knowledge is power, and arming yourself and the young people in your life with accurate, fact-based and non-judgmental information is the best way to combat those taboos.