Safe Sex, Sex Ed

The State of Sex Education in the USA in 2023

March 22, 2023 by Emily Mendelson

The state of sex education in the USA is vastly different across states. As of May 2023, there are 23 states that do not require sex education for high school students. Additionally, in the 27 states that do have sex education mandates, the information teachers provide does not necessarily have to be useful, correct, or unbiased. In fact, only 17 states require that sex education be medically accurate. Further, 29 states require abstinence to be stressed in the classroom.

Simply put, America is failing its youth when it comes to sex education that actually answers their questions and equips them with knowledge that will protect their sexual health. This is part of the reason why the United States has much higher rates of teen pregnancy and STIs than other industrialized countries. Check out the infographic below for a closer look at how variable sex education is throughout the nation today. 

Sex education is vital to adolescent health, but content matters. Research has found that U.S. states with the most abstinence-only programs actually have the highest rates of teen pregnancy [1]. This effect is magnified for conservative-aligned states [2], which also lead the country in implementing abortion bans. By contrast, comprehensive sex education is not only linked to lower rates of teen pregnancy [3], but also to lower rates of STI-risk behavior [4]. The evidence is overwhelming that simply teaching students to avoid sex until marriage is linked to worse outcomes than teaching them practical sexual skills and information.

Comprehensive sex education offers a number of benefits beyond improved sexual health. For example, these programs are linked to greater feelings of sexual empowerment by shifting traditional views of men and women [5]. This, in turn, can facilitate healthier sexual relationships.

Without school-based sex education, adolescents are likely to turn to unreliable and inaccurate sources of information about sex, including peers and porn. Students want useful school-based sex ed, too. In fact, some research has found that students see school as their single most-important source of sexual health information [6]. However, more and more states are allowing parents the ability to “opt-out” of sex education for their children, and more restrictions are being put in place on what can be taught, including increasing prohibition of LGBTQ+ discussion in classrooms. This is creating more barriers when it comes to adolescents’ ability to obtain comprehensive sex education.

If you want to help facilitate change, start by getting involved at the local level, because this is where most decisions about sex education content are actually made. Take interest in what your kids are learning (or failing to learn) about sex in school. Identify deficiencies in the program and follow-up with your local school board.

[1] Stanger-Hall, K.F., Hall, D.W. (2011). Abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates: Why we need comprehensive sex education in the U.S. PLoS ONE 6(10): e24658. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024658

[2] Fox, A. M., Himmelstein, G., Khalid, H., & Howell, E. A. (2019). Funding for abstinence-only education and adolescent pregnancy prevention: Does state ideology affect outcomes? American Journal of Public Health, 109(3), 497–504.

[3] Kohler, P.K., Manhart, L.E., & Lafferty, W.E. (2008). Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 344-351. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.08.026

[4] Stanger-Hall, K.F., Hall, D.W. (2011). Abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates: Why we need comprehensive sex education in the U.S. PLoS ONE 6(10): e24658. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024658

[5] Grose, R. G., Grabe, S., & Kohfeldt, D. (2014). Sexual education, gender ideology, and youth sexual empowerment. The Journal of Sex Research, 51(7), 742-753.

[6] Seiler-Ramadas, R., Grabovac, I., Niederkrotenthaler, T., & Dorner, T. E. (2020). Adolescents’ perspective on their sexual knowledge and the role of school in addressing emotions in sex education: An exploratory analysis of two school types in Austria. The Journal of Sex Research.

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Image Credits: Map made with, infographic made on Canva. Data from the Guttmacher Institute.

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Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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