New sex education standards provide educators support on more well-rounded conversations with students on sensitive topics

The National Sex Education Standards were recently updated to include advancements in research regarding sexual orientation, gender identity and the long-term consequences of stigma and discrimination — all topics that experts say are essential to keeping young people safe when covered effectively.

The standards were developed by the Future of Sex Education Initiative, a partnership between Advocates for Youth, Answer, and the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change). The second edition of “The National Sex Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K–12” was updated to aid teachers in providing medically accurate, trauma-informed and more inclusive sex education.

“These standards were updated to guide educators in providing sex education that is trauma-informed, inclusive of LGBTQ+ youth, and reflective of principles of reproductive and racial justice. These changes reflect the reality that today’s young people are increasingly diverse and vibrant,” Christine Soyong Harley, president and CEO of the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States, said in a statement. “They deserve information that is not only accurate and up-to-date, but also reflective of their lived experiences.”

The updated sex education standards now include, among other topics, advances in medical technology, the emergence of digital technologies and the growing impact of social and sexually explicit media on relationships.

Teaching to these standards can help kids and teens and learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, understand the importance of consent, mutual respect and bodily autonomy and reduce their risk of sexual violence, explained Deb Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth.

“Sex education mapped to these standards can help young people delay sexual initiation and use protection when they do become sexually active,” Hauser said. “We have the responsibility to ensure curricula are inclusive of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations and that we have honest conversations about cyber bullying, sexting, porn, and being safe online. The National Sex Education Standards provide educators guidance on the core content and skills necessary to effectively educate students on these essential topics.”

California’s sex education standards cover many topics included in update

Advocates for comprehensive sex education largely celebrated the passage of the California Healthy Youth Act in 2015, which includes instruction about gender expression, gender identity and gender stereotypes. The state requires school districts to ensure that all students in grades 7-12 receive comprehensive sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention education at least once in middle school and once in high school. The curricula must be age-appropriate, medically accurate and objective.

The California Department of Education also recently updated the Health Education Curriculum Framework to provide guidance for educators that teach sex education, including the use of inclusive language and instruction on consent. In 2018, two bills were signed allowing schools to provide instruction on the potential risks of sharing sexually suggestive or explicit materials through digital media, and require schools to include information on how social media and mobile devices are used for human trafficking.

There has been some pushback from parents and conservative religious groups regarding the inclusion of sexual health and development instruction for LGBTQ students and the move away from abstinence-only discussions on birth control methods. Additionally, although comprehensive sex education is mandated statewide, a report released last year from Equality California found that 28 of 130 school districts surveyed continue to lack inclusive policies and have exclusionary curriculum that is not culturally responsive to the needs of LGBTQ students. And those identified in the report as “priority districts” were considered likely to require additional assistance to ensure that curriculum is trauma informed and culturally responsive to the needs of student of color.