Can you pass a sex ed quiz based on what teens learn today?
Depending whom you ask, sex education is either a critical component of school or a breeding ground for inappropriate lessons. But what is actually taught in sex ed classes today?
Sex education is mandated in half the states, with another 11 requiring HIV education but not sex ed, according to a tally from the Guttmacher Institute. Still, what districts and individual schools teach varies. Some conservative states and communities push an “abstinence only” message — meaning the conversation is about why not to have sex, not how to mitigate the risks of disease or pregnancy.
Liberal states take a very different approach. How forthright do they get in discussing sex and sexuality with teenagers? We looked at three curriculums for high school students in progressive districts: the 3Rs, created by the advocacy group Advocates for Youth; HealthSmart, created by the ETR, a nonprofit; and FLASH, from the King County health department in Washington state. Some of the content would be found in any district in America; other topics are more likely to turn up in progressive districts.
The material that they cover isn’t always what adults were taught, because our understanding of these issues — and views on what teens need to know — has changed over the years. Do any of these questions surprise you? Take our quiz to read what teens learn today — and see how much you know.
Question 1 of 10
The majority of teens are not sexually active.
The HealthSmart curriculum introduces this idea early in its program as a way of easing any pressure on teens who may feel like they need to have sex to fit in. “Fewer than half of all high school students have ever had sex,” the lesson instructs. “Most teens your age are choosing to be sexually abstinent, or not have sex. You’ll be learning more in upcoming classes about why abstinence is the safest choice for teens.”
A slide in another lesson, citing 2017 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says more than 87 percent of ninth-graders and more than 75 percent of 10th-graders are “currently abstinent.”
Question 2 of 10
An egg is fertilized in the uterus.
The egg is fertilized in the fallopian tube.
Sex ed classes explain how pregnancy occurs: After ejaculation during vaginal sex, sperm travel up the vagina and through the uterus, with some reaching the fallopian tubes. Separately, eggs ripen in the ovaries and then are released, one per month, into the fallopian tube. If there is a ripe egg in one of the tubes, a single sperm may enter the egg and fertilize it. Fertilized eggs travel into the uterus. A FLASH lesson notes that pregnancy begins when the fertilized egg attaches to the uterine lining.
Question 3 of 10
People whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned at birth often realize this before they start kindergarten.
The FLASH curriculum defines gender identity as “a deep feeling people have about whether they are a guy, a girl, both, neither or somewhere in between." It says people often know this when they are very little, before kindergarten, though some are older.
A key message is that gender identity differs from sexual orientation, which determines who someone is attracted to. It also differs from biology, or the body parts that determine the sex identified at birth.
Question 4 of 10
Performing oral sex is riskier than receiving it if your partner has a sexually transmitted disease.
The 3Rs curriculum includes a quiz for high schoolers where various activities are compared based on the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. It says open-mouth kissing is riskier than holding hands or using a public toilet; “outercourse” (sexual contact without penetration) is riskier than abstinence or “mutual masturbation”; and having unprotected intercourse in a swimming pool is riskier than having protected oral sex or mutual masturbation.
It also explains that when it comes to oral sex, the person performing it is at higher risk because their mouth is coming into contact with the other person’s genitals.
Question 5 of 10
Abstinence is the most effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Over many years, there has been considerable national debate over whether sex education should teach “abstinence only,” which instructs teens to delay sex until marriage and omits discussion of birth control. Thirty-seven states require that any sex education classes include abstinence, including 26 that require it be stressed, according to a tally from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Comprehensive sex education, by contrast, includes information about how to prevent pregnancy and disease — including, for instance, how to properly use a condom. Yet many of these programs also communicate that abstinence is the most effective method.
One high school lesson in the FLASH curriculum has students act out how to say no to sex when they don’t want it. Another HealthSmart lesson instructs directly, “The surest way to prevent STIs is to be sexually abstinent.” A third lesson ask students to consider ways to express attraction while still remaining sexually abstinent.
Some curriculums, such as “Promoting Health Among Teens! Abstinence Only,” also distributed by ETR, focus on knowledge and skills to help students to abstain from sex, without discussion of condoms or other forms of birth control.
Question 6 of 10
Visible bumps and sores are the most common symptom of a sexually transmitted disease and a good way to know if you carry the virus.
The most common symptom of an STD is no symptom at all. Some people do develop bumps and sores on their genitals, but other symptoms are on the inside of the body and easy to miss. It’s a mistake to assume that just because someone doesn’t look sick, they aren’t carrying a transmissible virus. It’s a good idea to use condoms every time you have oral, anal or vaginal sex.
Question 7 of 10
Some sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia and syphilis, can be cured.
The 3Rs curriculum advises that syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea can all be treated and cured with antibiotics.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be controlled with a combination of medicines but not cured. Genital warts, caused by a virus called HPV, also cannot be cured. The 3Rs lesson also advises that warts do not need to be visible to pass the virus onto someone else.
Question 8 of 10
Sexting, or sharing sexually explicit photos of yourself online, can lead to felony criminal prosecution.
A lesson in the 3Rs curriculum asks teachers to show students news coverage of sexting, or the sharing and viewing of sexually explicit material online. While sexting is often thought of as people sharing naked images of themselves, it says, it can be considered a form of child pornography if the subject is under age 18. The lesson cites data that 14 percent of young people sent a “sext” in 2019 and that 23 percent received one. It also asks teachers to research and present details of their state’s laws around this.
In the HealthSmart curriculum, a lesson about healthy behavior around sexuality asks students to rate this statement as true or false: “Sexting — sending sexual images or messages via texting — is a good way to show you’re attracted to someone.” (Answer: false.)
Question 9 of 10
If your partner is jealous of the clubs you are in, that might be a sign of an unhealthy relationship.
The 3Rs curriculum includes a focus on healthy relationships and how to spot problematic behavior. Students watch a video featuring various scenarios and then discuss signs that things are going well. Signs that things are going wrong include someone getting angry if you don’t text back right away, getting annoyed when you spend time with friends and family instead of them, constantly wanting to know where you are and who you are with, and becoming jealous of clubs or activities that don’t include them.
The FLASH curriculum also uses scenarios to spot problems, including a partner who tries to limit or control what the other person does, often is jealous, or throws or breaks things during a fight.
Question 10 of 10
If someone talks in advance about having sex on a particular night, it’s reasonable for their partner to assume that they have consented to it.
The HealthSmart curriculum emphasizes that “affirmative consent” is needed and that each person involved is responsible for verifying that all sexual contact is consensual. Both people must be awake, aware and able to make decisions. And, the curriculum notes, “consent must be ongoing and can be withdrawn at any time.” Teachers are told to solicit from the class possible reasons why someone might go along with something they didn’t want to do. Some examples include being unsure about how to speak up, not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings, wanting to avoid conflict and fearing the loss of a friend or partner. Students also play a game where they are presented scenarios and have to judge whether both people have given consent, one person has said no or if it’s unclear.
FLASH includes a lesson where students are given real-life situations that might be uncomfortable and asked to consider which of many “bottom-line” statements might apply. For instance, students are presented with Aliyah and Malik, who are in a new relationship. Aliyah wants to have sex, but Malik wants to wait. A “bottom-line” statement that could help Malik figure out what to say includes “it is important to have permission or agreement before having sex with someone.”