Let’s Talk About Sex…Education and the Implications of the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act

by Jonathan Milohnić, 2L, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

It’s September and all across the country students are back in school. Unfortunately, most of these students are receiving inaccurate and inadequate sexual education, or in some instances no sexual education at all. Fortunately two United States legislators are attempting to change this and provide comprehensive sexual education to all. On July 27 and 28, 2017 Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) reintroduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act in both the Senate and House of Representatives. This is not the first time these legislators have introduced this bill in their respective chambers; Representative Lee has introduced this bill during each Congressional session since 2011 and Senator Booker has done the same since taking over for his predecessor, the late Frank Lautenberg, who first introduced the bill, simultaneously with Representative Lee, to the Senate in 2011.

The Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (REHYA) seeks to solve the problem of inadequate sexual educational in America. Currently, America holds a drastic lead in the teenage pregnancy rate when compared to similar developed nations like France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada. From 2002 to 2005 the teenage pregnancy rate in America was 72.2 per 1000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19. In other words, over 7% of American girls between ages of 15 and 19 reported a pregnancy between 2002 and 2005. Surprisingly, the highest rate, behind the United States, was Canada. The rate in Canada was 29.2 per 1000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 or about 3%.  The lowest rate was found in the Netherlands where the teen pregnancy rate was 18.8 per 1000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 or under 2%.

Why is there such a huge difference between the teen pregnancy rates in the United States and comparable developed nations? The answer: Title V Section 510. Since the passage of Title V Section 510 in 1996, Federal funding for sex education has been limited to “abstinence education.” Abstinence education is, in essence, sex education that does not include any instruction on sex, other than that you should avoid it. According to the Act, abstinence education is an educational program that “has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity; teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children; teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems; teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity; teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects; teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society…” Abstinence education has been the status quo for federally funded sex education programs across the country since 1996, but it is not working.

In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) administered a nationwide survey in public and private schools with students in at least one grade between 9 and 12. This survey, called the “Youth Risk Behavior Survey” (YRBS), reported that 41% of American high school students have had sexual intercourse. Furthermore 30% of American high school students are sexually active, meaning that they had had sex with at least one person during the three months preceding the survey. And this is where it becomes clear that abstinence education is doing a disservice to American youth: 43% of sexually active teens did not use a condom during their last sexual encounter and 73% of sexually active teens did not use birth control pills, an IUD, implant, shot, patch, or birth control ring to prevent pregnancy during their last sexual encounter.

Ultimately these statistics signal a public health crisis, especially as we begin to encounter more and more antibiotic resistant strains of STI’s, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea.  Ironically enough, and according to the CDC’s 2015 Sexually Transmitted Diseases Surveillance, gonorrhea and chlamydia infections are most prevalent amongst American youth (those between the ages of 15 and 24), who account for 50% and 65% of the reported gonorrhea and chlamydia infections in 2015, respectively. Furthermore, the Office of National AIDS Policy estimates that about 25% of all new HIV infections occur among people between the ages of 13 and 21.

These statistics are concerning regardless of your race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, or political leanings. It is clear that our current sex education system is ineffective and failing young Americans. Additionally, a simple Google search of public opinion polls regarding sex education results in plenty of evidence that the majority of Americans support federally funded comprehensive sex education. Booker and Lee’s REHYA has the chance to end federal funding for abstinence education and the potential to combat the teen pregnancy and adolescent STI rates.

School districts across America are strapped for cash. We know all too well that the first programs and classes to be cut from the curriculum at these schools are those deemed “unnecessary” and this often includes sexual education programs and “Health classes.” Only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate that sexual education be taught in schools, so that means that there are 26 states where it is very possible that there is no sexual education instruction available to students at all.  REHYA addresses this issue by providing 5 year federal grants to qualifying institutions to carry out comprehensive sex education programs. REHYA defines comprehensive sex education programs as programs that include abstinence, “the health benefits and side effects of all contraceptive methods as a means to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections,” information on where youth can access greater information and assistance on these topics, as well as other topics that one would find in a typical Health class.

What makes REHYA so dynamic is that the legislation requires those institutions receiving funding through REHYA to submit an evaluation plan to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who then selects, at random, some of these institutions to receive additional funds to carry out their evaluation plan.  The evaluation would assess the efficacy of the individual comprehensive sex education programs selected – outcome measures such as the knowledge gained by pupils and their sexual behavior would identify the most effective sex education programs. The Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Director of the CDC would actually publish a list of the most effective programs on the CDC website so that these programs could be replicated elsewhere.

Nothing about the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act should be considered partisan. This bill has the potential to change the course of teen pregnancy rates and STI infection rates in America by providing accessible comprehensive sex education, which will ultimately improve the lives of Americans in the long run.