What does sex education look like in America? It depends on where you live. On his show Sunday, Last Week Tonight's John Oliver explained why that's such a huge problem.
"Only 22 states mandate that kids receive" sex education, Oliver said. "And only 13 require that the information presented be medically accurate — which is crazy. You wouldn't accept a history class not being historically accurate." He mocked the idea: "'Prince started the American Revolution in 1984, and his Purple Rain lasts until the present day. Class dismissed!'"
Standards vary from place to place, and some schools won't even talk about what they teach
"We essentially have a weird patchwork system that varies wildly — and not just from state to state, but from district to district and even from school to school," Oliver said. "In fact, one Ohio newscast tried to find out what kids in their area were learning, and hit a brick wall."
In the Fox 19 newscast in Cincinnati, reporter Hagit Limor remarked, "Many school districts don't want to talk about it at all. [University of Cincinnati] students polled every school district in four southwest Ohio counties. The majority wouldn't tell us what they teach and when they teach it, even though all of this is supposed to be public information."
Oliver noted the problem: "That's really not good. Two teenagers shouldn't have completely different levels of sex ed just because they're in two different school districts."
Many states still require abstinence-only education
In some schools, sex education focuses on abstinence — the idea that people should wait until they're married to have sex. "You may think of [it] as a relic of the past, but it is still very much around," Oliver said, pointing to the recent boost in federal funding for abstinence-only programs from $50 million to $75 million — a sum that some states then partly match.
"Look, abstinence is a healthy choice that many teens will make," Oliver said, "either by choice or, as I can attest, by circumstance."
"But that's not the point," Oliver added. "It should not be the only thing you teach. And not just because many studies question its efficacy. The fact is, according to the CDC, most Americans have more than one sexual partner in their lifetime, and the average age at which people begin having sex is around 17. So just saying 'don't do it' is not practical."
Some states make it really difficult to learn about contraception
Some state guidelines don't make it clear what kids should learn, but they do make it clear what they shouldn't learn.
"For instance, in Mississippi, while you can talk about contraceptives, the law prohibits condom demonstrations in class," Oliver said. "That means no condom on a banana, no condom on a cucumber, no condom on a zucchini." He added, "That's terrible. Partly because it's fun putting condoms on produce, but mainly because Mississippi ranks number two in the country in teen pregnancy rates."
Some teachers have devised creative ways to get around the sex education limits. In one video, teacher Sanford Johnson explains how to put on a condom through a demonstration using a sock:
"In eight states, there are laws considerably limiting what teachers can say about homosexuality to their students"
"No promo homo" laws, as the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network calls them, forbid school staff from discussing LGBTQ issues, including sexual health and HIV/AIDS awareness, in a positive light, if at all. Many of these laws were passed in the 1980s and 1990s in response to the HIV scare and the anti-gay attitudes the epidemic fostered, but recently some state legislators, such as in Tennessee and Missouri, have pushed similar "don't say gay" laws.
Oliver explained, "Meaning the answer to that kid's question — 'is it okay to be gay?' — could be a shrug or a lot worse."