Sex education takes three basic forms in the U.S.: comprehensive, abstinence-based, and abstinence-only. The comprehensive approach, according to the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States, provides "age- and developmentally appropriate sexual health information" that is medically accurate, informed by scientific evidence, and sensitive to the needs of all young people. Topics covered by such a curriculum include "human development, abstinence, contraception, disease and pregnancy prevention, as well as skill development for healthy relationships and decision-making."
Abstinence-based sex education, on the other hand, specifically promotes abstinence while providing some or all of the elements of the comprehensive approach; abstinence-only models, of course, teach only abstinence until marriage. Abstinence-only curricula don’t provide any information on contraception beyond its failure rates.
Comprehensive programs are slowly gaining ground in the U.S. Still, abstinence-only programs have been well-funded over the years, beginning with the Reagan Administration and the federal block grant for maternal and child health services under Title V of the Social Security Act—despite evidence that these programs are ineffective when it comes to better sexual health. According to multiple peer-reviewed studies, abstinence-only programs do not delay the average age of the first time a person has sexual intercourse, nor do they prevent the spread of STIs or reduce the number of sexual partners someone has during adolescence. The peer-reviewed Journal of Adolescent Health came out against abstinence-only education in a 2006 position paper, stating that while abstinence is a healthy choice for teens, "Providing ‘abstinence only’ or ‘abstinence until marriage’ messages as a sole option for teenagers is flawed from scientific and medical ethics viewpoints."
Many advocates and experts agree. As Savage, a longtime critic of abstinence-only education, recently told me in a phone interview, he supports having sex education in schools but believes "[the country] should stop pretending what passes for sex education is sex education." Savage has been commentator and sex advice columnist since 1991, both in his Savage Love column and his extremely popular "Savage Love" podcast. He’s thus familiar with the full range of questions Americans have about sex. Savage agrees that the topics most school programs cover, such as reproductive biology, are important emphasized that curricula often ignore topics such as consent, pleasure, and effective communication about sex.
So I asked Savage to elaborate on what a comprehensive sex-education curriculum should cover:
We should be teaching the real things that can trip people up, things that can ruin people's lives or traumatize them, like what is and isn't consent, and what is and isn't on the menu, and what are you or are you not comfortable with, and how do you advocate for yourself, and how do you draw someone out and solicit their active consent so that you don't accidentally traumatize someone? We need to talk about sex for pleasure, which is 99.99 percent of the sex that people have, and that's 99.99 percent of what's not covered in even what liberals and progressives would look at and say, "Oh, look at that good sex ed!"
Savage claims that despite the nation’s outward appearance of progress on matters such as marriage and gender equality, "Sex education has gone backwards. When it comes to our children, there is more information and more truthfulness out there about sex, sexuality, gender identity, everything, than there has ever been. Social conservatives know they can't undo the sexual revolution, or unmake gay people, or roll back women’s empowerment—but they have it in their heads that they can reverse engineer the future by raising today's children in ignorance."