Describing American sex education as 'limited' is probably the kindest way to put it; but in comparison to other Western countries, sex education in the United States is shockingly inadequate. In The Netherlands, for example, the term 'sex education' is regarded as outdated, and has been modified to 'sexuality education' in order to place more emphasis on identity, consent, and pleasure. Additionally, by Dutch law, all primary school students (ages 4-11 years) must receive sexuality education where core principles of sexual diversity and sexual assertiveness are taught, and this must continue into secondary education. As a result, The Netherlands has some of the lowest rates of teen pregnancies and STDs, and high rates of contraceptives.
While learning sex education at such a young age might shock some Americans, learning 'abstinence only' doctrines, engaging in short-term courses starting only in high school, or receiving no sex education at all has been proven to be drastically more dangerous than the latter.
Furthermore, discourse surrounding a lack of sexuality diversity in American sex education has become more popular in recent years, as LGBTQ youth are far more vulnerable to negative sexual experiences. But one aspect that I notice has rarely been discussed universally is how White-centered sex/sexuality education is. Lacking significance placed on the vulnerability of POC youth to sexual harm, as well as an absence of intersectional discussions, renders sexuality issues POC youth face invisible and unimportant. Addressing the differences between individuals relationships to sex due to their racial background is integral to ending systems of sexual violence.
History of sexual health models
Do you know that 20th century sexual health theory was largely developed out of the eugenics movement? Throughout American history, women of color have been forcefully sterilized in attempts at keeping the 'purity' of the population. From 1897-1909, many states attempted and passed forced sterilization laws. From the 1960s-1980s, sterilization of Puerto Rican women reached a head of 30%, the Nixon administration funded sterilization of low-income women of color, at least 25% of Native American women had been non-consensually sterilized, and 20,000 government funded sterilizations were performed in California on Black and Latina women under rationalizations of 'bad parenting' and 'population burdening' concerns. Even more recently, from 2006-2010 148 incarcerated women in California were coerced into illegal sterilization procedures. While most of us were taught a White-washed version of second wave feminism and the right to reproductive health in our high school history classes, a sinister history of violating women of color's reproductive rights remains in the shadows. How can the teaching of safe sex and contraceptive use be helpful if it neglects to discuss how many Black and Brown women are denied the right to birth? What fears must this history instill in marginalized populations around accessing reproductive healthcare when many POC individuals have been abused by health research? Our relationship to reproductive healthcare is largely impacted by our racial background, yet most sex education classes neglect how vital this identity is in one's relationship to sex.
Who is most at-risk?
Consent is a staple doctrine of most progressive sex education classes, but rarely is it discussed with complexity. Black girls and women experience the highest rates of sexual violence and are less likely to seek justice due to prejudice in law enforcement, lacking policy support, and fear of experiencing more violence. Black, Hispanic, Native American and Pacific Islanders have much higher rates of teen pregnancies. Black youth have the highest rates of STIs, being six times more likely to contract Chlamydia than White counterparts. As the most at-risk group, reproductive health and sex education policy is failing Black and Brown youth, yet rarely discussions are held about how sex education can teach lessons on racial diversity.
Oftentimes, STIs and teen pregnancy are highly stigmatized topics which posits negative attitudes towards affected individuals. By not addressing how these attitudes can be highly racialized, in addition to lacking general understanding of POC communities' relationships to reproductive healthcare, White adolescents can internalize racist notions and POC adolescents can internalize notions of being 'lesser'. While most progressive sex education classes discuss the danger of unprotected sex, they do not discuss the vulnerability of POC youth and ensure an absence of judgement into students. Even in courses that criticize 'abstinence only' ideas, if the teaching does not aim to educate students on these socialized issues, racialized projections surrounding teens of color will persist.
Sex Education is not just in-school
Sex education does not just come from class or 'the talk' with caregivers. We learn so much about sex and sexuality from outside forces, particularly the internet. 90% of teenagers have watched pornography, and arguably for Gen Z, porn has emerged as a pivotal educator in teaching adolescents about sex. As "teen" is the most common role mentioned in porn titles, the porn industry targets adolescents by projecting 'youthfulness' as a positive in sexual relationships. On top of that, nearly nine out of ten pornography videos show physical violence and aggression, normalizing dangerous sex acts. Even further, however, pornographic content often reinforces racial stereotypes.
Women of color are often designated to sexually subservient roles that reinforce gender and racial stereotypes of violence. For example, "Japanese" was the most popularly viewed category according to Pornhub's 2021 insights. With Asian femme porn actresses often portraying historical stereotypes like the submissive 'Lotus Blossom' archetype, a 2018 study of Pornhub found that 75% of porn videos depicting Asian actresses showed aggression. Furthermore, one-third of films featuring Asian women displayed non-consensual violence. Black women also are commonly portrayed as targets for aggression, often described as "beaten objects".
In studies done on Black male portrayal in porn, Black men often are depicted as perpetrators of aggression. Additionally, scenes showing Black couples are generally more aggressive and lack intimate acts like kissing, reinforcing stereotypes of violence. What is most important about these findings in adolescent well-being is that pornography often teaches its viewers that sex with people of color must be conducted in this way. For White viewers, deeply racialized stereotypes project harmful fetishistic fantasies upon people of color, and for POC viewers, an internalization of how they are expected to act in sexual situations can take place. While most progressive sex education classes will cover pornography, the specifics of portrayals of certain identities are rarely discussed. Without covering these sexual stereotypes, the vulnerability of adolescents of color to sexual violence will continue to be normalized, with acts onscreen being mirrored in real life.
Looking to the future
It is no secret that the American sex education system is overall disappointing, lacking the inclusion of several identities (queer, POC, and disabled individuals)if even being taught at all. In order to create courses on sex/sexuality that actually work to protect all children, critical race theory must be an integral part of education and sex education classes must discuss how racial stereotypes manifest in sexuality. By erasing the importance of race in preventative healthcare, the experiences of people of color are marked as unimportant. This forces us to reckon with the basis of sexual health education in the United States; who is granted the most sexual freedom, and whose sexuality is policed the most?