Sex education is much more than “the birds and the bees” – and it impacts children in ways that have never been fully quantified.
That is, until now.
A new study by Montclair State University professors Eva Goldfarb and Lisa Lieberman – the first of its kind in the field – shows comprehensive sex education can prevent child sex abuse and intimate partner violence, increase appreciation for sexual diversity and improve environments for LGBTQ students, among other benefits.
The research is the most extensive body of work to date that shows comprehensive sex education should begin as early as kindergarten.
“This landmark study establishes once and for all that quality sex education that begins early, is developmentally appropriate and builds sequentially through middle and high school can improve young people’s physical, mental and emotional well-being,” says Goldfarb, a professor of Public Health at Montclair State. “While many people think of sex education only in terms of pregnancy and STD prevention, these findings speak to the broader impact of quality sex education.”
No Different Than Math
Goldfarb and Lieberman analyzed 30 years of published research on school-based programs around the world, and their respective outcomes.
The results show that sex education, like any other subject, is most effective when it builds – creating an early foundation and advancing with developmentally appropriate content and teaching.
Children as young as preschool age not only comprehend, but can openly discuss subjects as varied as gender diversity, gender nonconformity and gender-based oppression, making it the ideal time to begin creating a foundation for lifelong sexual health.
“Waiting until eighth grade algebra to first introduce the subject of math would be absurd. The same is true for sex education,” says Goldfarb.“Basic foundational concepts such as personal boundaries, different family structures, healthy friendships, treating others with respect, and social-emotional skills need to be introduced early in elementary school. These become the building blocks for more sophisticated discussions in later grades.”
Creating Safer Environments and Healthier Outcomes
Programming implemented in earlier grade levels has helped to prevent child sex abuse. It has also led to improved self-protective skills, improved knowledge of appropriate/inappropriate touching, increased parent-child communication and increased disclosure of abuse.
At the higher grade levels, comprehensive sex education within schools has also resulted in decreased intimate partner violence, as well as an increase in bystander interventions and other positive bystander behaviors.
The same can be said for the environments created by quality sex education. Goldfarb and Lieberman’s research found that LGBTQ-supportive classes across the curriculum, and within sex education in particular, resulted in a more positive school climate, including increased feelings of safety and lower levels of homophobia and bullying for all students – specifically decreased homophobic bullying.
Likewise, LGBTQ-inclusive sex education resulted in better mental health among LGBTQ students including lower reports of suicidal thoughts, as well as decreased use of drugs or alcohol before sex, and increased school attendance among that student population.
“If students are able to avoid early pregnancy, STIs, sexual abuse, and interpersonal violence
and harassment, while feeling safe and supported within their school environment, they are more likely to experience academic success,” says Lieberman, who is chair of Montclair State’s Department of Public Health. “This is particularly important for LGBTQ students who regularly face more hostility in schools and are more likely to drop out.”
Their research also yielded important findings as to the benefits of comprehensive sex education including: improved body image, better overall interpersonal relationships (not just intimate ones), and improved media literacy – including an increased understanding of how media can impact a person’s sense of self and the perceptions of teen “norms.”
Putting It All Together
To date, fewer than half of school districts nationwide have adopted the National Sex Education Standards for comprehensive sex education.
Research shows that the majority of parents and communities already support comprehensive sex education. Goldfarb and Lieberman hope their research will encourage more school districts across the country to implement this programming as early as possible.
“Hopefully, this research will help the public to recognize that quality sex education, beginning in the earliest grades, can improve the wellbeing of young people in ways that will serve them well throughout their lives,” says Lieberman.