VOICES: It’s time we start prioritizing sex education in Ohio

I feel like a broken record; sex ed is a human right. Sex ed saves lives. Young people deserve sex ed. Sex ed, when done well, works.

I am a fierce advocate for comprehensive relationship and sexual health education (CSE), so I will continue to shout these facts from the roof tops. But I think it is time we push beyond them.

Saying that sex ed is important may not be enough anymore. People know that sex ed is important. In fact, more than 85% of parents and almost all students favor comprehensive sex education over abstinence-only approaches. So why is Ohio still falling so far behind?

Since the fall of Roe, we have received an increase in requests for educational services. And unfortunately, this was expected. We knew that panic would ensue once Roe was overturned and people began to feel the uncertainty of access to abortion and birth control.

But there’s a problem there. While I am glad that people recognized the realities and chose to reach out, the asks were limited only to pregnancy prevention methods. This is concerning to educators for several reasons.

Namely, when sex ed is limited to only “pregnancy prevention”, youth are missing out on critical information and skills needed to make fully informed and empowered decisions about their relationships and sexual health. We could teach youth about how to prevent a pregnancy, however, if they have not learned about reproductive and sexual anatomy, they will struggle to apply the content of a pregnancy prevention lesson. If they do not receive education on communication skills, they may struggle to discuss protection methods with a partner. If they do not learn about consent and boundaries, they might find themselves in a situation where they feel like they cannot say no. All of these scenarios could ultimately lead to an unwanted pregnancy. And that’s just one unfortunate consequence of a lack of access to education. Ohioans must look at this holistically.

Zoom out.

It’s no secret that the state of Ohio works tirelessly to make comprehensive sex education less accessible for youth. Similar to TRAP laws that impede access to abortion care, legislators continue to put in place requirements that make it increasingly difficult for schools to offer comprehensive sex ed or to have highly trained and competent educators in to work with their students. Right now, Ohio law promotes an “abstinence only,” approach. This programming is, at best, ineffective. At its worse, it is harmful to young people, particularly, but not exclusively to LGBTQIA+ people, Black people, people of color, and survivors of sexual violence. Study after study has confirmed that abstinence-only programs are ineffective and detrimental to participants, yet Ohio legislators continue to fund it.

At Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio, we work every single day to increase access to comprehensive sex education for youth in the communities we serve. Ohio is the last state without health education standards. Furthermore, what is written into the Ohio Revised Code is horrendous, outdated and rooted in AOUM approaches. The education programming that we have developed is in alignment with the National Sex Education Standards created by the Future of Sex Education (FoSE) partnership. If you’re still reading and you’re angry, good. If you want to learn more on how to advocate for comprehensive sex ed in your community or school, email educate@ppswo.org to learn about our advocate training.

Youth in Ohio need and deserve comprehensive sex education that sets them up for healthy relationships and equips them with the knowledge needed to navigate the world. Together we can push for an Ohio that facilitates that. But we have to do it together. And we have to be focused. Now more than ever — their futures depend on change.

Sarah Dahlston, M.S. is the Director of Education for Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region and an AASECT and CHES certified sexuality educator.

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