If you’re like us, you spent a lot of 2021 reading the news. Between COVID updates and stories like the Texas abortion ban, it’s easy to feel disheartened about the state of the world. But it wasn’t all bad news this year! There were a lot of exciting developments in the world of sex education at the state and county level that didn’t always make big headlines, but are doing plenty to make comprehensive sex education more accessible for students across the country. We think this is progress worth celebrating! So, in partnership with our friends at SIECUS, we’re shining a light on all the good “sex-ed” news that happened this year.
But first, what should sex ed should look like?
Sex education can be a controversial topic, especially since it involves the health and safety of youth — people have strong opinions! At wisp, we believe in accessible, comprehensive sex education for all young people. So what does that look like? SIECUS defines comprehensive sex ed as, “Programs that build a foundation of knowledge and skills relating to human development, relationships, decision-making, abstinence, contraception, and disease prevention.” These programs are always age-appropriate, medically accurate, and culturally relevant, and they must go beyond the simple “birds and bees” explanation.
An appropriate sex-ed curriculum should not only teach us about healthy relationships but go into issues relating to mental health, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, ability, society and culture. No one’s sex life exists in a bubble — a comprehensive sex-ed approach aims to make sure students have the skills to manage all aspects of sex in the real world.
So what happened in 2021?
More and more people who work in schools, in policy, and in state government are realizing the positive impacts that comprehensive sex ed can make in their students’ lives. They’ve started passing bills to make this kind of sex ed a reality in schools! Let’s take a look at the numbers:
- 124 bills related to sex education were introduced in 2021
- 84 of those bills (68%) sought to advance the quality of sex education
- An additional 5 new laws were enacted to improve sex education
- 21% of introduced bills included quality requirements for sex education, such as mandating medically accurate, evidence-based, or culturally responsive curriculum
- 14% of introduced bills mandate comprehensive sex education
Is your state stepping up their sex ed game?
Let’s see which states were standout stars this year in sex ed.
Federal Legislation (All 50 states)
The Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act (REAHYA) was introduced this year.
Why we care: For the first time, REAHYA centers the needs of our most underserved youth and incorporates reproductive justice and equity-oriented provisions into federal funding support for adolescent sexual health programs. The bill has 11 Senate cosponsors and 84 House cosponsors, exceeding the level of support that prior sex ed bills have received!
On August 20, Illinois passed the Keeping Youth Safe and Healthy Act. This act creates age-appropriate learning standards for public schools that decide to teach comprehensive personal health and safety education (grades K-5) and comprehensive sexual health education (grades 6-12). Plus, it ensures that instruction is inclusive and affirming of communities that are historically stigmatized or excluded from such instruction, including youths living with a disability, LGBTQIA youth, pregnant or parenting youth, and survivors of interpersonal and sexual violence.
Why we care: This sex ed is for everyone, including children, teens, and those who may not see themselves in many forms of “traditional” sex ed. It’s a big win for Illinois!
Tennessee enacted SB 1360, which requires each local education agency to provide family life education. Tennessee also enacted HB 577/SB 1392, which amends requirements regarding instruction on contraception to require the local board of education to review and approve instruction to ensure it is medically accurate, age-appropriate, in compliance with state statute, aligned to state academic standards, and available for parental review.
Why we care: It may be hard to believe, but many states do not require sex education to be medically accurate! This bill helps make sure that young people are getting the info they need to be making smart decisions about their reproductive health. Right on, Tennessee!
Alabama enacted HB 385 on April 20. Introduced by Representative Laura Hall (D-19), the law requires sex education instruction to be medically accurate and amends course material’s emphasis on self-control and ethical behavior to instead emphasize the importance of delaying sexual activity and discouraging risky sexual behavior. Further, the law removes the requirement for materials to emphasize stigmatizing and false information regarding the acceptability and criminality of LGBTQ+ identities.
Why we care: We know abstinence-only education doesn’t work — this law recognizes that teens may have sex and allows students to get medically accurate information about sexual health risks. Plus, it takes a small step towards normalizing LGBTQ+ identities in sex education content — keep it up, Alabama!
The people who helped make it happen
These are the folks working tirelessly (and across the aisle) for a more informed and inclusive tomorrow.
- Jaclyn Friedman is a co-chair of the Worchester community group fighting for comprehensive sex education. They won their fight; electing pro-CSE school board members AND she just started EducateUS: SIECUS In Action, a 501c4 (affiliated with SIECUS) to build a movement of voters supporting sex ed.
- Natasha Vianna is a co-founder of NoTeenShame. In 2013, seven young mothers from across the United States came together to improve conditions for young parents and their families. Initially, the movement started as the #noteenshame hashtag on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram. Within a few days, thousands of young parents across the nation joined the campaign. Together, they elevated the sexist, racist, and classist roots of teen pregnancy prevention and made local and national policy changes. As a result, the former dominant narrative of young parenthood is no longer welcome – and we’ve replaced old messaging with an inclusive, positive, and justice-based language.
- Graham Weinschenk is a co-founder and team leader of the VA Coalition for Sex Ed Reform. As a high school student, Graham began fighting for inclusive sex education in Virginia. This year, VA passed forth a budget amendment that asks the Department of Education to collect information on which public schools are teaching what with regard to sex education (Family Life Education). This is important because now advocates can use this data to advance legislation that addresses data-informed gaps in adolescent sexual health.
How you can get involved
Policy is super important, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to increasing access to comprehensive sex ed. We can all do our part to help support and spread the word about the importance of sexual health education!
- Put your money where your mouth is. Donating to national organizations like Planned Parenthood and SIECUS is a great way to support sex education and you can feel confident knowing where your money is going. You can also give to local organizations to support your community right at home!
- Vote. Stay informed about what’s going on with sex ed nationally and locally and talk to friends and family about it! Keep voting for representatives who support teaching medically accurate, inclusive sex education to our young people.
- Help normalize conversations about sexual health. Get involved in some of the many different conversations happening every day (online and IRL!) about sex and relationships, vaginal health, STIs, healthcare costs, and more. Don’t know where to start? Check out some of the different stories wisp has featured this year!
Sex-ed conversations with wisp
In 2021, we launched The Wispering Podcast with Symone Elena. Our wonderful host Symone isn’t a doctor or sexual health expert. She’s a patient just like you who’s passionate about empowerment through sexual health education. She covers everything from how to handle an STI diagnosis, to talking to your partners about sexual health, to managing the cost of healthcare, and more! Check out all our episodes in the Wispers section of our blog.
This year we also partnered with some of the most talented voices out there to help remind us that it's ok to laugh about sexual health. Steph Barkley and Serena Kerrigan aren’t just amazing comedians—they’re also passionate about destigmatizing sexual health! Both women are helping to normalize conversations about our bodies and spread the word about access to reproductive care, all while keeping a smile on our faces.
And of course, we tap'd our network to find experts (and novices) from a broad range of backgrounds to learn how they're navigating reproductive health challenges and why it's important to work together towards structural change that improves education and access for coming generations. From sex workers to sex educators, we talked with "pros" across the nation to share their expert knowledge with us—and they didn’t disappoint. Learn about how sex workers practice self-care and everything you never knew about sex educators. Bonus: Interested in living that #VanLife? We talked to 6 people really making it happen about what health challenges they face on the open road.
And finally...all we can say is Thank You!
We wouldn't have made it through 2021 without you, our wonderful community who continue to trust us with your health and wellbeing. In your words:
All I can say is Thank You! There really aren't enough good things I could say about my first experience with Wisp. I was replied to SO promptly and felt they made every single effort to make me feel as comfortable as possible. I will now be telling every single person I know about this site haha! Thank you so so much to the doctors and everyone involved with this company. It’s truly a very impactful thing going on.- Jenna Payne - October 28, 2021