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Sex education shouldn’t be controversial

Sexuality education is more than just putting condoms on bananas. And it’s even more than preventing sexually transmitted infections and avoiding unintended pregnancy. Sexuality education teaches young people the importance of treating everyone with dignity, respect, fairness and compassion for others as core values.

From the American Medical Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics, experts agree that comprehensive, inclusive and medically accurate sexuality education is critical for young people. Comprehensive, inclusive and medically accurate sexuality education helps young people grow up to become healthier and more successful adults; it leads to lower STI rates, fewer unintended pregnancies, better self-esteem and healthier relationships; and it helps young people develop social and emotional skills to become caring and empathetic human beings.

Considering these multiple benefits, sexuality education should not be a controversial issue. The overwhelming majority of Americans want young people to get sexuality education that covers a wide range of topics — and that includes Republicans and Democrats. When families have the facts, it’s easier to talk honestly about safety, consent and contraception so young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need inside and outside the classroom.

Sexuality education has never been universally accessible, but now it’s even more at risk due to anti-sex education movements by powerful groups. Even here in Oregon, where we have one of the nation’s strongest sex-ed laws, our school districts lack parental support and engagement to provide a curriculum that’s accurate and inclusive.

Opposition to honest education is nothing new. There has always been a vocal minority intent on stopping honest, equity-centered education that could lead to positive social change. In the 1950s, this same vocal minority focused on keeping Black students out of all-white schools. In the 1990s, the goal was to censor facts regarding evolution in science classes. Now, well-funded organizations like Parents’ Rights In Education are creating a false panic about sexuality education and all equity work in schools.

These extremists are organizing a vocal minority of individuals — wrongly portrayed as a grassroots effort — to stoke fear and outrage around sexuality education in communities across the country. They blatantly lie to cause panic so they can dictate what is and isn’t allowed in schools — including pushing for “abstinence only” programs and banning students from safely using the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

To create an illusion of grassroots resistance, these groups have brought people from other towns or states to pretend they live locally and take over school board meetings. They fund big social media misinformation campaigns and harass young people, parents and staff who advocate for real education and safe schools.

Let’s be clear: Young people deserve answers to their questions about sex and relationships, free of shame and stigma no matter who they are, where they live or what their income is. Eliminating or censoring sexuality education sets them up for failure instead of success.

May is Sex Ed for All Month, a great time for parents and caregivers to advocate for sexuality education in the Rogue Valley. Be sure to ask the right questions: Ask your children what, if any, sexuality education they’ve gotten in school. Find out if your children are happy with what they’re taught, if they feel included and what they wish their schools would teach.

It’s also helpful to research who is making decisions about sexuality education at your local school; it may be a health coordinator, an individual teacher or a districtwide School Health Advisory Committee. You can contact them to learn what topics are being taught, what curriculum is being used and who is teaching the program.

Without a national sexuality education program or full funding at the federal level, the quality of programs varies across the country, if they exist at all. Contact your elected leaders and tell them to support the Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act and federal funding for sex education like the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and the Personal Responsibility Education Program and to remove funding for so-called Sexual Risk Avoidance (aka “abstinence only”) programs.

We all want the best education for our kids, including sexuality education. Where you live shouldn’t determine the quality of the education you receive.

Sexuality education works. It gives young people the knowledge and skills they need for a lifetime of good health and happiness, and it sets them up for success in a diverse society.

Gabbie Michelle of Grants Pass is a community educator with Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon.