History, Timeline and Notable Legislation
1800s- pamphlets about venereal diseases, overall good hygiene, and the evils of prostitution and masturbation were widely distributed outside of schools.
1913- Chicago attempts to formally introduce sex-ed into their school systems. The Catholic Church helps shut it down. (8)
1914– The American Hygiene Association was founded to teach soldiers about sexual hygiene throughout the war. They would later be involved in creating school curriculums.
1916– Planned Parenthood is founded in New York.
1919– A report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau was released that suggested soldiers would have been better off if they had received sex instruction in school. (8)
1920s– resurgence of interest in getting sex-ed into schools.
Between 20-40% of U.S. school systems had programs in social hygiene and sexuality. (8)
1930s– The U.S. Office of Education began to publish materials and train teachers.
1964– The medical director at Planned Parenthood, Mary Calderone, founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) in part to challenge the American Social Hygiene Association.
1968– A pamphlet called “Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?” is widely distributed by Gordon Drake and James Hargis framing sex ed as a way to indoctrinate children into communism. Thus began the scary rhetoric that sex-ed was teaching students to be homosexuals and that teachers were having sex in front of students. (8)
1980s– The AIDS epidemic takes hold. Religious groups use this public health crisis to push their own agenda and convince school board members and legislative officials that abstinence-only sex education was the only way to keep kids “safe.”
1981– President Regan signed the Adolescent Family Life Act (aka the “Chastity Law” –yikes!). This law allowed federal funding to go to abstinence-only programming. And abstinence-only sexuality education (AOSE) and abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) programming became the norm in the US.
2004: Study is published showing the harms of abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs and the importance of investing in comprehensive sexuality education. There are plenty more studies that have been published since reaffirming the same results. (It’s possible there were studies earlier than this, but this was the earliest one we could find. Know of an earlier one? Please get in touch!)
2018: Under the Trump administration, Abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) is rebranded to be Sexual Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE) (1). More federal funding goes towards pushing these programs.
And in Vermont…
Vermont first passed a law mandating Comprehensive Health Education in 1977 and most recently revised the law in 2012. This strong sex education law mandates systematic and extensive sex education in elementary and secondary schools. Educational programming must include the physical, psychosocial and psychological basis of sexuality, and the study of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The 2018 Vermont School Health Profile published by the Vermont Department of Health recognizes that sexual health includes physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being. The profile also calls for sexual health education to be appropriate and inclusive for the youth of all sexual and gender identities. Regarding best practices, the profile suggests employing Exemplary Sexual Health Education (ESHE), an approach to sexual health education that uses grade-specific, evidence-based interventions, asserting
“there is no evidence that abstinence-only sexual education programs are effective.”
Thank goodness for Vermont!
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
While Vermont does not legally require information to be medically accurate, Andrea Nicoletta, Education Program Manager at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England (PPNNE) told Allbodies that students in Vermont are taught medically accurate information about sexual health and HIV by trained, licensed educators. She explained,
“We’re fortunate that in Vermont we do not have a movement against medically-accurate sex education.”
Students in Vermont are required to receive “age-appropriate” sex education. Nicoletta explained that, while each school district in Vermont determines what is age-appropriate for their students, the National Sexuality Education Standards is a fantastic resource endorsed by PPNNE, which many K-12 schools look to in order to inform curriculum. Parents are able to opt-out of HIV and AIDS education only.
Vermont’s law includes a strong component of refusal skills and personal boundaries. Specifically, the law states that instruction must promote the development of responsible personal behavior involving decision making about sexual activity including abstinence, the possible outcomes of premature sexual activity, contraceptives, adolescent pregnancy, childbirth, adoption, and abortion. Students also must receive educated on how to recognize and prevent sexual abuse and sexual violence, including instruction about promoting healthy and respectful relationships and recognizing sexually offending behaviors.
Vermont is widely regarded as one of the most queer-friendly states in America, yet Vermont law does not require education on sexual orientation. But this doesn’t mean Vermont students are missing this key information. According to Nicoletta, more than 80% of Vermont high schools are teaching about sexual orientation even though it’s not mandated.
What the kids are actually learning
According to lead health educators in Vermont, the majority of high school students grade 9-12 are learning key competencies in health education. Middle school students in grades 6-8 are less likely to receive information on all recommended topics.
Nearly all students in grade 9-12 (98%) learn:
- How HIV and other STDS are transmitted;
- Health consequences of HIV, other STDs, and pregnancy;
- Benefits of being sexually abstinent;
- The importance of using condoms consistently and correctly; and
- Creating and sustaining healthy relationships.
A bit fewer (96%) learn about:
- Methods of contraception other than condoms;
- The benefits of using both condoms and other contraceptives;
- Preventative care;
- Efficacy of condoms; and
- How to access valid and reliable sexual health information and services.
Many students are also taught about limiting their number of sexual partners as a way of STI and pregnancy prevention.
The majority of 9-12 students (95%) are taught about communication skills related to eliminating or reducing the risk for HIV, STDs, and pregnancy, and how to obtain condoms. Many students (93% to 91%) learn about the relationship between alcohol and other drugs and sexual behavior, peer pressure, and gender roles, gender identity, or gender expression.
Unfortunately, only 89% of high school students learn how to correctly use a condom. 88% of students learn about influencing and supporting friends and peers to avoid or reduce sexual risk behaviors. 87% of students learn specifically about sexual orientation as part of their health education. Finally, 81% of students learn about goal setting and decision making skills to reduce or eliminate the risk of HIV, STDs, and pregnancy.
Middle school students in grades 6-8 are less likely to receive sexual health education, and more likely to learn about topics related to creating and sustaining health and respectful relationships (78% of students). Many middle school students also learn about the relationship between alcohol and other drugs and sexual behavior, gender roles, identity and expression, peer pressure, and HIV and STD transmission. Only about half of middle school students learn about using condoms consistently, the efficacy of condoms, other methods of contraception, how to obtain condoms, or how to correctly use a condom (with only 40% of middle school students learning how).
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
Beyond strong sex education provided to students in Vermont, there is work being done to increase the number of schools that provide direct sexual or reproductive health services, or referrals for sexual health services off school property. Schools are encouraged to provide on-site or referral services for key sexual health services including HIV, STD, and pregnancy testing. Key services also include providing condoms, condom-compatible lubricants, other types of contraceptives, and human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations.
Whether or not students must get parental consent before receiving sexual health services on school property varies by school. Some schools require parental consent before any services are provided, while others notify parents of services, and yet others require no parental consent at all. Similarly, parental consent to provide referral services to students vary by the school as well.
Currently, only 27% of Vermont high schools provide condoms for students. As for middle schools, only 3% provide condoms for students. The percent of schools that are able to administer the HPV vaccination has increased over time, from 1% in 2012 to 4% in 2018. Only 5% of schools provide direct sexual health services on school property. Overall, 4% provide pregnancy testing and HPV vaccinations, 3% of schools provide on-going HIV treatment and the provision of condom-compatible lubricants, and 2% provide STD testing, STD treatment, and prenatal care. Less than 1% provide HIV testing.
To fill any gaps in the school-based sexual education that Vermont students receive, PPNNE offers a robust peer education program. PPNNE’s Peer Education Program equips high school youth with the knowledge and decision-making skills to achieve and promote sexual and reproductive health for themselves, their peers, and their communities. This unique leadership opportunity empowers youth to be agents of positive change for themselves, their peers, and their communities.
(1) Brattleboro Museum Art Center “Looking Back, Moving Forward: Four Decades of Queer Activism in Vermont.” Accessed November 23, 2019. https://www.brattleboromuseum.org/2019/06/07/looking-back-moving-forward-four-decades-of-queer-activism-in-vermont/.
(2) Guttmacher Institute. “Sex and HIV Education.” November 1, 2019. Accessed November 23, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education.
(3) Planned Parenthood. “Education & Training.” Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. Accessed November 22, 2019. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-northern-new-england/local-education-training.
(4) Vermont Department of Health Division of Health Surveillance. “Vermont School Health Profiles: 2018 Report.” Accessed November 22, 2019. https://www.healthvermont.gov/sites/default/files/HSVR_SchoolHealthProfiles.pdf
(5) Vermont.gov. “Home.” Accessed November 23, 2019. https://www.vermont.gov/.
(6) Vermont General Assembly. Vermont Laws. “16 V.S.A. § 131.” Accessed November 22, 2019. https://legislature.vermont.gov/statutes/section/16/001/00131.
(7) “Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute. The Guttmacher Institute, December 3, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education.
(8) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.