Policymakers at the federal and state levels are seeking to expand the scope of sex education programs to better meet the needs of young people. They are shifting their focus from programs dedicated solely to preventing adolescent pregnancy and STIs to ones that promote young people’s well-being and agency over their own sexual and reproductive health. State lawmakers are pursuing this vision through legislation that emphasizes consent in sexual relationships, equips adolescents with skills to establish healthy relationships, and responds to the needs of young people across the sexual orientation and gender identity spectrums.

Such efforts are not novel, but progressive state lawmakers are showing renewed interest in broadening the scope and relevance of sex education programs. This shift is due, at least in part, to growing recognition and discussion of the role of sexual violence and consent in people’s lives. This movement is reflected at the federal level with the reintroduction of the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, which would establish federal funding for comprehensive sex education programs and eliminate a key funding stream for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

Proactive State Bills

Within the first five months of 2019, 32 states and the District of Columbia introduced 79 sex education bills, the vast majority of which—thanks to the work of state advocates and policymakers—support young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. Three trends rise to the top: sexual consent, healthy and violence-free relationships and LGBTQ-inclusive instruction.

State legislation commonly defines consent as an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious agreement to sexual activity, a concept that helps young people to assert their needs and desires and respect those of their sexual partners. Twenty-one bills have been introduced in 12 states and DC that would require sex education to cover consent, and such legislation has been enacted this year in DC and New Jersey. This recent uptick adds to the five other states with similar laws already on the books. Consent education inherently contradicts the ideology behind abstinence-only programs by affirming young people’s sexuality and supporting responsible, realistic choices about sexual behavior.

It also complements a long-standing trend toward instruction on healthy relationships and the prevention of dating and sexual violence (sometimes known as “life skills”).  Fifty-five bills have been introduced in 32 states and DC that would require coverage of healthy relationships or violence prevention, indicating sustained support by lawmakers in these elements of comprehensive sex education.

Sex education is only truly comprehensive when programs are responsive to and inclusive of all students’ sexual orientations and gender identities. Eighteen bills have been introduced in 11 states that would require sex education to be inclusive of the needs of LGBTQ+ students, with some measures additionally requiring all students to learn about gender identity and sexual orientation.

Momentum at the Federal Level

In May, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) reintroduced House and Senate versions of the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (REHYA). This legislation would provide young people with medically accurate and comprehensive sex education to help them make informed, responsible and healthy decisions throughout their lives. The bill requires program grantees (such as schools or community-based organizations) to offer culturally and developmentally appropriate instruction on physical, social and emotional development; sexual and reproductive behaviors (including contraceptive use, abstinence and sexual decision making); and gender equity, among other topics.

REHYA also establishes funding to train sex educators, amends existing federal law to require that sex education does not stigmatize sex or shame LGBTQ+ students, and redirects funding from a state abstinence-only-until-marriage program to fund these grants. This bill’s expansion of sex education programs stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s continued efforts to undermine evidence-based sex education programs and promote abstinence-only education.

A Good Investment

Social conservatives often co-opt language around “life skills” and “healthy relationships” in service to an abstinence-only agenda, but the most helpful life skills are ones that enable adolescents to make the best choices for them, as determined by them. Progressive state and federal policymakers recognize this, and are working to ensure that young people develop these skills through sex education that is comprehensive and relevant to their experiences. Equipping people with the tools to have agency over their sexual and reproductive health will benefit them for the rest of their lives.