Should Sex Ed Be Mandatory?

With only 18 states requiring sex ed to cover contraception, and only 13 states requiring sex ed to be ‘medically accurate,’ the U.S. could learn something from our northern neighbor.


Don’t want your children to learn about sex in school? Too bad, says Quebec.

This school year, the Canadian province is rolling out a controversial pilot program in 15 schools that will make sex education mandatory for all students from kindergarten through high school, the CBC reports. There will be no exemptions for parents who wish to withdraw their children for religious or cultural reasons.

Some parents and educators are challenging the policy but the Ministry of Education is holding firm. Said spokesperson Pascal Ouellet: “Sexual education is planned for all Quebec students.” The ministry claims that the program, which may be adopted province-wide by 2017, will help prevent sexual violence, reduce unwanted pregnancies, and protect children from sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

“For the moment, no exemptions are planned,” Ouellet added.

Should parents be permitted to have their children opt out of sex education? In the United States, that’s a question that many states take more seriously than sex education itself.

According to a Guttmacher Institute report (PDF), 32 states and the District of Columbia allow parents to opt their children out of sex education and three states allow opt-outs for HIV education. Arizona, Nevada, and Utah require parents to provide consent for their children to even participate in these programs. By comparison, a mere 22 states mandate sex education in the first place, although a more considerable 33 require HIV education. Even then, only 18 states require information on contraception to be included if sex education is taught and only 13 require their programs to be “medically accurate.”

It is, as John Oliver put it on Last Week Tonight, a “weird patchwork system” in which children are far from guaranteed to receive comprehensive information about sexual health—that is, provided their parents don’t object.

Quebec’s radical move to ignore parental objections is not unprecedented. For one, a handful of U.S. states, including Delaware and Kentucky, have state-mandated sex education with no specific laws allowing parental opt-out.

Across the pond, the idea is fairly commonplace.

In Sweden, sex education was made mandatory since the 1950s. Several other European countries have followed suit, including most current members of the EU (PDF). For parents in many of these countries, opting out is simply not an option. When five Baptist couples in Germany kept their children out of school during sex education lessons, for example, the state fined each of them. The Federal Constitutional Court of Germany upheld the decision to fine the parents, as did the European Court of Human Rights.

England’s sex and relationship education (SRE) is compulsory for all students age 11 and older in schools that are required to follow the National Curriculum, but most schools are not subject to this requirement and parents are able to withdraw their children from portions of the SRE curriculum. In response, the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party, the British Humanist Association, and the Sex Education Forum campaign have been pushing for all schools to be bound by an SRE requirement. Their efforts have been met with pushback from “faith schools” that maintain religious affiliations but often receive state funding.

But in the United States, which is a far more religious nation than even the U.K., compulsory nationwide sex education would present a challenge.

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Even some of the most ardent U.S. advocates for comprehensive sex education stop short of challenging parental opt-out laws and policies.

In a CNN op-ed this week, Advocates for Youth president Debra Hauser argued that schools have to “make sure all teens have access to essential information and contraception options to protect their overall health.” Citing CDC data that shows that nearly 70 percent of U.S. teenagers have had sex by age 19, Hauser argues that federal funding for abstinence-only sex education programs should be terminated in favor of more thorough sex education programs.

But Advocates for Youth also supports parental opt-out laws.

In a statement to The Daily Beast, Hauser said: “We believe that all young people have the right to sexual health information so that they can take personal responsibility for their health and well being. That said, we believe schools should provide an opt-out policy for those that don’t want their young people to participate but should also be careful to offer the student and their family another option (and a non-stigmatizing way to exercise it) so that the student doesn’t feel singled out.”

A spokesperson for the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA)—another organization supporting comprehensive sex education—agreed with Hauser’s statement.

Other critics, however, have taken direct aim at parental opt-outs. Writing for The Daily Dot, S.E. Smith argues that a parent opting a child out of sex education is “an action that is functionally equivalent to vaccine refusal,” given the rate of STIs among teenagers and young adults. Just as parents who don’t vaccinate their children compromise herd immunity, Smith says that “parents who opt out of sexual education are also creating public health risks” and that there should be “mandatory comprehensive sexual education.”

The vaccine analogy is a compelling attempt to prioritize public health over parental rights, but it may not persuade American parents.

The ongoing controversy surrounding states’ attempts to mandate the HPV vaccine, for example, proves that the balance between public health and parental rights is especially difficult for lawmakers to find when sex is involved. Only two states and the District of Columbia have school requirements for the HPV vaccine, although the vast majority of states have introduced legislation to educate children about the virus.

Ultimately, the debate over parental opt-outs only concerns a small number of current schoolchildren. There is no comprehensive data available that shows how many parents take advantage of U.S. opt-out laws but, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), the average is under five percent in the few school districts that have reported on the subject. As Hauser noted, “Most schools with opt out policies report that very few families actually choose to use them.”

Whether this percentage would increase if states made sex education more comprehensive, however, is another story. For now, sex education is spotty, abstinence-only programs are still common, and only nine states mandate inclusive discussion of sexual orientation.

If that changes, watch for parental opt-out laws to get a lot more use. They might not seem like the center of the sex education debate now but, soon, they could be.