The Polarizing Reality of Comprehensive Sexual Education

For far too long, sexual education has been a topic of debate in America, with party lines determining the education American children so desperately require. With sexual education and policy pertaining to curricula framing political agendas and covering national broadcasts, this brief will explore the pressing political polarization behind comprehensive sexual education.

At YIP, nuanced policy briefs emerge from the collaboration of six diverse, nonpartisan students.

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Executive Summary

This brief will cover the polarized reality of comprehensive sexual education and current policy considerations and developments. Some key pieces of our analysis include analyzing the context of comprehensive sexual education and an in-depth overview of the current actions the federal government is taking, public popularity, and criticism.


Since 1913, when sex education was first introduced into public schools, the landscape of sexual health and understanding have been in constant flux. From STD epidemics to religious resistance, sex-ed has retained its spotlight in both the media and in science, continuing to be a prominent topic for America’s adolescents. While some support greater, more comprehensive sex education, others advocate for stricter restrictions on what teachers are permitted to share in the classroom. Ultimately, as sex education becomes a standard in America’s schools, it is critical to understand the history behind the lessons to realize the importance of comprehensive sex education. 

Sex education first began after the US Department of Labor’s Children's Bureau found that in-school education would have likely prevented soldiers from suffering syphilis and gonorrhea.1 This marked a radical change from the traditional understanding that sexual education was to be strictly taught by parents within one’s home. Such a viewpoint would prevent schools from clashing with students’ unique values and religious beliefs. Nevertheless, sex education would continue to expand into high schools and colleges. 

The 1980s outbreak of AIDS garnered dramatic support for the expansion of sex education programs across the country. The rapidly spreading disease peaked at a staggering 150,000 infections annually in the mid-80s, showing parents and teens firsthand the effects of sexually transmitted diseases.2 As a result, the 1981 Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) bill was passed, utilizing federal funding to create abstinence-based sex education programs. The program was founded on the principle of “no sex until marriage,” strictly discouraging any sexual relationship between adolescents. The long-term vision was to reduce an estimated 1.1 million pregnant teenagers to 0.3  

Today, there are two forms of sex education: abstinence education  and comprehensive education. While the former strictly discourages any sexual relationship, the latter more broadly includes education regarding anatomy, contraceptives, puberty, and reproductive choice. Abstinence advocates argue that as adolescent brains are still developing, it is irrational to undermine the no-sex message. They maintain that the irrefutable message of celibacy is the most effective.4 On the other hand, comprehensive education proponents will point to the overwhelming collection of research which points to its comparatively greater effectiveness in curbing STD & pregnancy rates.5 They argue that broader knowledge is required to make smarter decisions. Fundamentally, though, ethical and practical considerations for both methods are still heavily contested.   

Policy Problem

A. Public Popularity

Polls, surveys, and various articles all say a majority of Americans are in favor of sex education.6 Only a minority of articles oppose the content of sex education. A study was done to measure several key aspects that reflect a broader consensus on its importance and scope.7 Firstly, there's a significant backing for comprehensive sex education programs, and  “results indicate that US adults, regardless of political ideology, favor a more balanced approach to sex education–” furthermore a central tenet of support for sex education lies in the emphasis on informed decision-making.8  Young people are given comprehensive, accurate, and age-appropriate information about sexuality and their sexual reproductive health. This is crucial for their health and well-being. Teaching students about sex education decreases the occurrence of unintended pregnancies and the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases. The emphasis on prevention in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s recognized  that young adults will engage in sex, and it is better to emphasize safety over abstinence.9 The point is not to force the youth, whether a student engages in sex or not is a deeply personal decision. Supporters of comprehensive education's  only concern is to ensure the relationship is consensual and that “precautions are taken to minimize disease transmission.”10 Proponents believe that sex education should empower individuals to make choices that align with their values and preferences while understanding the potential consequences. By providing accurate information and fostering critical thinking skills, comprehensive sex education aims to enable individuals to make responsible decisions regarding their sexual behavior and health. A more comprehensive teaching on sex shows results of a healthier outcome.11 In addition to promoting informed decision-making, people strongly advocate  for inclusivity within sex education curricula.12 This includes recognizing and respecting diverse identities, orientations, and experiences. Inclusive sex education programs strive to create safe and supportive environments where all individuals feel represented and valued, regardless of their backgrounds or circumstances.

Furthermore, advocates of comprehensive sex education in schools recognize the role of parents in educating their children about sex and relationships. Many supporters emphasize the importance of collaboration between schools and families, recognizing that parents play a crucial role in shaping their children's attitudes and values regarding sex.14 By fostering open communication and cooperation between home and school environments, comprehensive sex education efforts can be further strengthened and reinforced.

Lastly, the ubiquity of information access in the digital age underscores the importance of providing accurate and age-appropriate education in schools.13 Adolescents are naturally curious about sexuality, and they often turn to the internet for answers. However, not all information online is reliable or suitable for young audiences. Sex education in schools serves as a trusted source of information, ensuring that students receive accurate, evidence-based guidance from trained educators in a safe and supportive environment. Ultimately, public support for sex education in schools reflects a broader acknowledgment of the importance of promoting sexual health and fostering healthy attitudes and behaviors among young individuals. By investing in comprehensive sex education programs, communities demonstrate their commitment to the well-being and empowerment of future generations.

B. Citizen’s Criticism

The federal government has established guidelines for comprehensive sex education through the Future of Sex Education (FoSE) Initiative.15 By the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution, education (including sex education) policy falls under the authority of individual states and municipalities. The range of depth in sex education varies across state borders, with only eight states–California, Hawaii, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia–mandating the mentioning of consent and sexual assault in their curricula as preventative measures of sexual crimes.16 Only four states, California, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington, have passed comprehensive sex education policy.17 The lack of sex education in many states is often due to persistent concerns about religion, morality, and parental rights. Opponents worry that comprehensive curricula will encourage sexual activity at young ages. 

As of 2021, self-identified Christians of various denominations compose over 60% of the American population.18 While this number is down by more than 10% since a decade prior, the still-significant presence of religious morals is a firm basis on which abstinence-based sex education is praised for. The push for implementing sexual education began in the mid-twentieth century, and the counterbalancing act of Christian voicings against the widespread release of sexual knowledge also rose shortly thereafter.19 It was under this majority politically conservative wing of religious practitioners that comprehensive sex education was criticized for its extensive requirements of teaching the use of contraceptives as well as other information that contrasted from a pro-natalist Christian viewpoint. In comparison to the belief outlined by supporters of comprehensive sex education that STI-prevention knowledge should be provided alongside a cumulative theme that sexual activity should be refrained from in order to avoid unwanted pregnancies and infections, the abstinence agenda preaches that a lack of sexual activity until preparedness for child-bearing is the only moral practice.20 The question of corrupting young children–in which sex education in the United States is provided as early as the fourth grade–has been the primary inhibiting factor for the expansion of curricula.21 Aside from arguments on religion-based morality and corruptive behavior, sex education opponents are also concerned about a hypersexualized American teen culture. Children between the ages of 13 and 16 are more exposed to sexual content on social media, especially as these digital platforms are more accessible.22 Many teens report exposure to this content even earlier. In addition to exposure to sexually explicit material online, teens are more focused on body image, including an implicit strive for sex appeal.23 As such, opponents of comprehensive sex education note that the implementation of such in-depth curricula amidst a pre-existing culture of hypersexuality will only exacerbate and prepare Generation Z and Generation Alpha children to become further involved in premature intercourse.24

Policy Considerations

The White House’s National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality affirms the government's support for medically-accurate, inclusive, age-appropriate sex education to prevent sexually transmitted infections.25 However, in reality, an absence of uniformity in policy decisions has led to some states facing a lack of access to comprehensive sexual education. With eight  states explicitly requiring teachers to either  abstain from discussing or to portray LGBTQ people negatively in health instruction and only nine states requiring sex education or HIV/STI instruction to include information on consent, the United States discussion on sexual and reproductive education has been overcome by a culture war of  political and religious factors.26 Legislation like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill demonstratesRepublicans’ restrictive approach to sexual health, with a majority of red states favoring an abstinence-only approach to the topic. A Rutgers-led national survey found that Democratsare more likely than Republicans to want topics of healthy relationships, birth control, consent, and sexual orientation included in school sex education programs.27 

Similarly, the amount of funding a school district receives also factors into its sex-ed approach. People of color, LGBTQ, and rural young people disproportionately receive poorer and less effective sexual education than their well-funded counterparts.28 

In light of these disparities and the critical importance of comprehensive sexual education i, there is a pressing need for cohesive national policies prioritizing evidence-based, inclusive approaches. One possibility for progress lies in federal initiatives that provide incentives for states to adopt comprehensive sex education programs that adhere to medically accurate standards and promote inclusivity. Additionally, increasing funding for sexual education in underserved communities can help bridge the gap in access and quality. Moreover, fostering partnerships between schools, healthcare providers, and community organizations can enhance the effectiveness of sexual education efforts by providing holistic support and resources. By advocating for policies that prioritize the health and well-being of all young people, the United States can move towards a future where sexual education is a universal right.


Overall, this brief includes a detailed description of the polarizing reality of comprehensive sexual education in America. The analysis considers the context behind comprehensive sex-ed, proponents’ and opponents’ arguments for legislative action pertaining to curricula, and considerations as a result of current discussions over the topic. 


The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge, Michelle Liou, Joy Park, Nolan Ezzet, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.


  1. Bryan Harris, "The History of Sex Education," National SexEd Conference, last modified March 25, 2015, accessed April 15, 2024,,US%20(SIECUS)%20is%20founded.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "HIV and AIDS --- United States, 1981--2000," Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, last modified June 1, 2001, accessed April 15, 2024,
  3. Malone, Patrick, and Monica Rodriguez. "Comprehensive Sex Education vs. Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs." American Bar Association. Last modified April 1, 2011. Accessed April 15, 2024.
  4. Nott, Rohini. "Adolescent Family Life Act (1981)." Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Last modified October 21, 2020. Accessed April 15, 2024.
  5. Zeiler, Alean. "Abstinence Education." The Linacre Quarterly 81, no. 4 (2014): 372-77.
  6. "Survey Says (again): People Overwhelmingly Support Sex Ed." SIECUS, 17 Apr. 2024,
  7. Huber, Valerie. "A Historical Analysis of Public School Sex Education in America Since 1900." DigitalCommons@Cedarville,
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  9. Swift, Jayne. "More Than Ever, We Need Comprehensive Sex Education." Gender Policy Report, 22 May 2023,
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  13. “Dashes and Parentheses.” University of Illinois Springfield,
  14. “NATIONAL SEX EDUCATION STANDARDS.” Advocates for Youth,
  15. “NATIONAL SEX EDUCATION STANDARDS.” Advocates for Youth,
  16. Maxouris, Christina, and Saeed Ahmed. “Only these 8 states require sex education classes to mention consent.” CNN, 29 September 2018,
  17. Irvine, Janice. “America Delayed: An Analysis of Comprehensive Sex Education in the US.” Scholars Archive,
  18. “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated.” Pew Research Center, 14 December 2021,
  19.  Slominski, Kristy, et al. “How religion made modern sex ed – The Immanent Frame.” The Immanent Frame, 21 August 2020,
  20. Farrar, Lauren. “Sex Education in America: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly.” KQED, 16 September 2020,
  21. “Sexuality Education in Fifth and Sixth Grades in U.S. Public Schools, 1999.” Guttmacher Institute, 2 September 2000,
  22. “‘I see it everywhere…’ young people's exposure to sexual content in social media: a qualitative study of Australian adolescents' social media use.” SeS Home,
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  24. “Why Comprehensive Sexuality Education Does More Harm Than Good.” Meridian Magazine, 30 July 2018,
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  26. What You Need to Know about Florida's “Don't Say Gay” and “Don't Say They” Laws, Book Bans, and Other Curricula Re,
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Varun Venkatesh

Public Health Analyst, Policy Associate

Varun Venkatesh is a Public Health Analyst and Policy Associate for YIP. Born and raised in Carlsbad, California, he loves to spend time with family, play sports, and research mathematical concepts.

Anirudh Mazumder

Health Policy Lead

Anirudh is a Grapevine High School (GHS) sophomore and a health policy lead at the Institute of Youth In Policy (YIP). As the Vice President of the GHS Debate team, he led the way by qualifying for state in multiple formats (TFA and UIL) in LD and Policy debate, respectively, and seeks to leverage computational problem-solving and health policy for holistically addressing patients' and environmental needs.

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