February 17, 2014

Comprehensive Sex Ed In Schools: What Is “Age Appropriate?”

A Kansas middle school recently garnered controversy for a classroom poster mentioning anal sex and sexual fantasies.

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Sex Education Poster

Sex Education Poster

Sex education controversy

A Kansas Middle School caught the eye of the media recently when a parent complained about the content of a sex education poster used in 7th and 8th grade classrooms. The poster, entitled “How do people express their sexual feelings?” listed a range of activities ranging from hugging and dancing to anal sex and vaginal intercourse. Not all parents were upset by the poster however, arguing that teenagers are already exposed to a wide variety of sexually explicit materials through the internet and playground chatter, and it is better for them to receive this information from a medically accurate source.

Increasing support for comprehensive sex education in schools

A recent analysis of telephone surveys conducted in several states indicate the majority of American parents support comprehensive sex education in schools, even in states where abstinence-only education is mandated. These findings reflect research that abstinence-only education is ineffective, and may actually lead to greater numbers of teen pregnancies. These programs may have unintended long term consequences as well, as a 2009 surveypointed to unsettling gaps in knowledge related to safer sex practices and contraception in young adults ages 18-29. Comprehensive sex education programs that offer information about contraceptives and safer sex practices in addition to encouraging abstinence  may help cut down rates of teen pregnancies and STIs.

What is “age-appropriate” sex education?

While most parents would like their children to receive “age appropriate” sex education in school, age appropriateness is a vague concept that is often subjectively defined, as demonstrated by the divergent opinions of parents in response to the poster above. While some parents may support comprehensive sex education in a general sense, they may draw the line at sex education that includes discussions of sexual orientation, oral sex, anal sex, and other topics beyond the scope of penile-vaginal intercourse. Parents may feel that these topics are inappropriate or too advanced for middle school aged students. But is it realistic to exclude these subjects from comprehensive sex education curricula, when students may already have received inaccurate information from their peers or the internet?

There is relatively little research on the prevalence of mutual masturbation, oral, and anal sex in teenagers. However, there are indications that teens may choose to engage in these acts as an alternative to coitus for pleasure, as a way of reducing pregnancy risk, or preserving virginity.  A 2009 study of college students revealed that 24% of respondents viewed anal sex, and 37% viewed oral sex as “abstinent” behaviors. While these behaviors may reduce the risk of pregnancy, these behaviors still put teens at risk of STI transmission, particularly unprotected anal sex, which poses the greatest risk for HIV transmission of almost any sexual activity. Furthermore, school sex education curricula is frequently not inclusive of the sex education needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual teens, who may be more likely to engage in non-coital sexual activities. This is especially problematic when we consider that in 2010, MSM (men who have sex with men) between the ages of 13-24 accounted for 72% of new HIV infections of all people in that age group.

“It is age appropriate to learn about anal and oral sex in middle school,” says Dr. Catherine Sherwood-Laughlin, an Associate Clinical Professor at the Indiana School of Public Health who specializes in sexual health education research. “You can see that in middle school, students should learn how STIs and HIV are transmitted, and these are two ways they are transmitted. Additionally, high school and middle school age students engage in these activities instead of vaginal intercourse to prevent pregnancy.  These activities are ways some people express their sexuality with another and we need to acknowledge these in the context of a consensual relationship (and non-consensual) and in the context of disease transmission. We do not want our children to learn about this from their friends, we want them to learn about this from their parents first, and in the schools as supportive partners in educating students.” Dr. Sherwood-Laughlin suggests that parents and educators should review the 2004 “Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: Kindergarten-12th Grade” produced by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), as well as the “National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K-12” published by the Journal of School Health in 2012, for expert guidance on this matter. She also suggests that parents take an active role in their children’s education by “reviewing all sex education curricula in advance and make sure they are fully aware of the school’s policies, procedures, content and teaching methods.”

Additional resources

It is important that parents play a role in educating their children about sexuality in addition to whatever education they may receive at school. In addition to reports mentioned above, Dr. Sherwood-Laughlin recommends the following books and websites as resources for parents and their children:

Sex, Etc. 

Advocates for Youth

The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls (for girls ages 8 and up)


Our Bodies Ourselves

Additionally, Heather Corinna’s  Scarleteen is an excellent resource for teens and people in their twenties on a wide range of sex education topics, and Kinsey Confidential’s resource pages contain a wealth of information geared at readers ages 18 and up.