By Racheal Hebert, LCSW, President & CEO
The topic of comprehensive sex education for youth remains controversial across Louisiana. While some believe that keeping sexual health education out of schools serves as a way to prevent teens from having sex, our statewide data shows a different story. According to our state’s 2016 Annual Health Report Card, Louisiana ranks 44th among states in the reported number of births among females 15 to 19 years of age. Further, our state’s rate of STD and HIV/AIDS infection is double the national average.
We know that youth are engaging in sexual behaviors—both consensual and nonconsensual. One of the best tools we have to prevent teens from getting involved in risky and harmful sexual activity is to provide them with the education they need to understand their bodies and sexuality, as well as collect data to understand the prevalence of sexual behaviors that can affect young people’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Comprehensive sex education is a critical foundation for sexual violence prevention
Sexual violence is occurring at epidemic levels in our communities, and youth are often the most vulnerable targets. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 10% of girls and boys under the age of 18 experienced rape, attempted rape or were made to penetrate someone based on national survey data collected in 2012. Because youth lack comprehensive information about their bodies, sexuality and healthy relationships, they often do not understand sexual violence when it happens to them. Those who abuse children rely on their vulnerability and lack of awareness and understanding of sex to get away with this violence, knowing that children often don’t have the language to describe what is happening or feel too much shame to talk about it.
Comprehensive sex education goes beyond just the biological basics of reproduction; it provides students with knowledge about abstinence, human development, anatomy, physiology, families, personal contraception, STI and HIV/AIDS prevention, healthy relationships, communication skills, media literacy, responsible decision making, and more.
When administered based on national best practices, sexual health curricula offer youth a wide range of information on how to deal with the social and emotional characteristics of sexuality, which can provide protection in the form of knowledge. Youth who are taught comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education beginning as young as grade school have the opportunity to learn about the benefits of abstinence, as well as their changing bodies and understand ways to protect and assert their own boundaries when it comes to adults, peers and future dating partners.
Louisiana parents support comprehensive sex education in schools
According to the Louisiana Parent Survey, administered by the Louisiana Public Health Institute and the Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies in 2016, parents overwhelmingly support mandatory comprehensive sex education in Louisiana schools. In fact, 61% of parents believe their children are already receiving sexual health education in schools; however, Louisiana Law does not require or monitor comprehensive sex education in schools at this time. A majority of Louisiana parents surveyed believe that comprehensive sex education is an important part of school curriculum, and that schools should be required to offer it.
Collecting data on youth sexual behaviors is also a must
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) was developed in 1990 to monitor priority health risk behaviors that contribute markedly to the leading causes of death, disability, and social problems among youth and adults in the United States. The national survey, conducted by CDC, provides data representative of 9th through 12th grade students in public and private schools in the United States.
YRBS monitors six types of health-risk behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death and disability among youth and adults, including:
- Behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence
- Alcohol and other drug use
- Tobacco use
- Unhealthy dietary behaviors
- Inadequate physical activity
- Sexual behaviors related to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection*
*Louisiana does not collect this data currently.
The majority of states already use the YRBS. In fact, in 2013, 42 states participated in the YRBS, including Louisiana and nearby states such as Mississippi and Alabama. However, Louisiana and Georgia were the only two states that participated but did not collect sexual risk behavior data.
Implementation of the YRBS with the inclusion of sexual risk behavior questions would allow Louisiana to:
- Monitor risk behaviors that lead to health and social problems
- Assess whether risk behaviors increase, decrease, or stay the same over time
- Examine the co-occurrence of different risk behaviors
- Provide data that is comparable to national data, that of other states, and among subpopulations of youth within Louisiana
- Evaluate prevention programs to make sure that they are working
- Inform policy development and administrative decision-making at the state and local level
- Avoid losing funding for prevention programming in schools. Schools are a great place to conduct prevention programs because many youth can be served at a relatively low cost
- Develop prevention programs to reduce sexual risky behaviors and delay the onset of sex
What you can do
- Educate yourself on the issue and start a dialogue with parents, schools and your local officials about the importance of comprehensive sex education.
- Contact your legislators and ask them to 1) support adding sexual behavior questions to the YRBS administered by Louisiana schools and 2) support mandated comprehensive sexual health education in Louisiana schools. Click here to find yours.
- Share this information online through email and social media to increase others’ awareness of the issue.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) Overview. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/overview.htm
Louisiana Department of Health (2017). Annual Health Report Card (Rep. No. Version 2). Retrieved from: http://ldh.louisiana.gov/assets/oph/Center-PHI/2016HealthReportCard.pdf.
Louisiana Public Health Institute (2016). Louisiana Parent Survey: What Louisiana parents know, believe and perceive about school-based sex education. Retrieved from http://files.constantcontact.com/c7c4a078301/088b17df-0ad3-4bb4-8f2a-271bb2006df7.pdf.
Louisiana Public Health Institute (n.d.). Toolkit for Successful Implementation of Comprehensive Sexual Health Education in Louisiana Schools. Retrieved from http://www.lphi.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Sex-Ed-Toolkit-Full-Version.pdf.
Smith, S.G., Chen, J., Basile, K.C., Gilbert, L.K., Merrick, M.T., Patel, N., Walling, M., & Jain, A. (2017). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010-2012 State Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.