In 2020, there were 2.4 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, and more than half of these sexually transmitted infections (STIs) affected people between the ages of 15 and 24. If left untreated, STIs can permanently damage the reproductive system and even render a person infertile. Unfortunately, educating young people about sexual health remains contentious, which may continue to cause the numbers to rise.

The public discourse around sexual health education is focused on teaching gender identity in elementary school rather than ensuring teenagers have the knowledge necessary to prevent STIs as adults. Despite 29 states mandating schools provide HIV and STI education, only 16 states require schools to provide medically accurate information when HIV and STI prevention is taught. Additionally, 35 states require curriculums to stress that abstinence is the only or the primary method to prevent STIs.

Of course, abstaining from sexual activity is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent STIs. It is also true that teachingyoung people about how STIs are acquired and how to avoid them actually postpones when young people become sexually active while also decreasing adverse health outcomes. Still, 55 percent of teens have sexual intercourse by age 18. For these young people, abstinence as the only form of prevention is a moot point, and other methods of preventing STIs are required.

Let’s be clear: covering abstinence as one option and mandating medically accurate HIV and STI education should be the floor, not the ceiling. At a minimum, states should require that all content be age-appropriate, medically accurate and evidence-based.

However, parents still want a great deal of influence over what their children learn. The reality is that most states allow school districts to have significant control over the content of sexual health education programs, making state laws regarding sexual health education more of a minimum requirement than anything else. This allows flexibility for districts to respond to parental concerns. Furthermore, since most states also allow parents to opt their children out of sexual health instruction, parents can elect what their children learn regardless of what is mandated by state law.

Despite the fights over sexual health education, teaching teenagers about STI prevention is popular across the political aisle. In a national poll conducted in 2021, 88 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans said that sex education for teenagers should teach about birth control and contraceptives. 

And from a public health perspective, adopting a more comprehensive sexual health curriculum that includes information about unintended pregnancy, contraceptive methods, STI prevention, reproductive development, sexual/gender identity and expression, healthy relationships, and consent is proven to result in better health outcomes for young people.

As the debate on sexual health education continues, it is essential to not lose sight of the common goal: protecting our youth and future generations.