Sexual Health Education Should be Comprehensive, Medically Accurate, Age-appropriate, Evidence-informed, and Inclusive, but What Does that Mean?

The Future of Sex Education Initiative (FoSE) is a partnership between Advocates for Youth, Answer, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S.  In 2008, FoSE helped convene 40 individuals from the fields of health education, sexuality education, public health, public policy, philanthropy, and advocacy for a two-day meeting to create a strategic plan for sexuality education policy and implementation. A key priority that emerged was the National Sexuality Education Standards. The standards outline best practices in philosophy and clear, consistent, and straightforward guidance on the essential minimum core content for sexual health education that is developmentally and age-appropriate for students in grades K-12. The standards were developed to address the inconsistent implementation of sexual health education nationwide and the limited time allocated to teaching the topic. According to FoSE’s rationale for sexual health education in public schools,

For years, research has highlighted the need to provide effective, comprehensive sexuality education to young people. The U.S. has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the industrialized world. Each year in the U.S., more than 750,000 women ages 15-19 become pregnant, with more than 80 percent of these pregnancies unintended. Furthermore, while young people in the U.S. ages 12-25 make up only one-quarter of the sexually active population, they contract about half of the 19 million sexually transmitted diseases annually. This equates to one in four sexually active teenagers contracting a sexually transmitted disease each year. And young people ages 13-29 account for about one-third of the estimated 50,000 new HIV infections each year, the largest share of any group.[i]

For more information, you can find the standards here .

While advocates for comprehensive sexual health education have a deeper knowledge of what it means for sexual health education to be comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate, evidence-informed, and inclusive, the terminology may be unknown to people who don’t work in this space. So, let’s dive in!

  • Comprehensive: Ideally, sexual health education is taught in Kindergarten through 12th Grade. Curriculum will look very different in Kindergarten vs. 12th Grade (more to come on that), but, in order for young people to effectively learn about sexual health, they need more than a few days in one school year dedicated to learning. Comprehensive also means that it includes subjects like anatomy, puberty, human development, healthy relationships and communication, sexual expression, peer pressure, consent, contraception, and sexually transmitted infections and diseases. One commonly held myth is that comprehensive sexual health education does not discuss abstinence. In fact, comprehensive sex ed. teaches that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective form of preventing pregnancy and transmission of sexually transmitted infections.
  • Medically Accurate: Unfortunately, some sexual health education curricula provide inaccurate information regarding effectiveness of contraceptives or emotional outcomes of choosing to become sexually active before a certain age or social milestone. In order for sexuality education to be effective, young people must be able to trust the person teaching them and the resources they are providing. Young people should be taught that sexuality is a natural, normal, healthy part of life. They must also learn medically accurate information regarding their bodies and the reproductive system, human development, sexuality and gender, all types of birth control, effectiveness of birth control options, and the different spectrum of values around sexual activity.  In addition, young people should be provided with the tools (trusted Internet resources, organizations, people in the community) to find additional accurate information on their own.
  • Age-appropriate: Sexual health education, like any other subject learned in school, builds on itself each year, and curriculum must be appropriate for the target age group. In Kindergarten, sexual health education may be about hygiene – the importance of hand washing – and boundaries like “good touch, bad touch.” A discussion of hygiene for middle schoolers would include menstruation, and boundaries and consent will be more in-depth when discussed with an 11th grader. When sexual health education is taught at each grade level, it gives young people information that is appropriate to their development, empowers them to make healthy decisions and communicate their feelings and boundaries, and provides them with tools to find accurate information or reach out to trusted adults when they have questions.
  • Evidence-informed: There are many different sexual health education curricula, but in order for it to be most effective – and have the desired outcomes related to behavior, whether delayed sexual debut, increased communication about sex in relationships, and/or increased condom contraception use for sexually active students – it should include best practices in the field and deliverables should be measurable.
  • Inclusive: Sexual health educators should be comfortable working with diverse groups of students that come from different racial, ethnic, socio-economic, gender, and sexual orientation backgrounds. Young people should see their identities and experiences represented in what they are learning, especially when learning about relationships, sexuality, and making healthy decisions. Comprehensive sexual health education is inclusive of different gender identities and sexual orientations and does not place value on certain types of relationships over others. Students should have the opportunity to explore and define their identities and values, as well as those of their families, friends, and communities.

Call to Action
Do you feel like you have a better understanding of the different facets of comprehensive sexual health education? Are you curious what is being taught at your school, your child’s school, or in your community? Do you want to learn how to improve the sexual health education being taught in your district or how to implement a sexual health education policy? The Collaborative for Comprehensive School Age Health created a toolkit to help you. Or, you can contact me, at

[i] Future of Sex Education Initiative. (2012). National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K-12 [a special publication of the Journal of School Health]. Retrieved May 22, 2017 from