A black woman with the words "my body, my rules" written across her chest.

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Rising numbers of sexually transmitted diseases among adolescents has sparked a controversial debate over sex education. Conservatives have used the alarming figures to argue in favor of abstinence-only programs; while liberals counter that the best way to reduce these statistics is through sex positive education.

“One easy way to illustrate the conceptual folly of using abstinence-only education to guide human sexual behavior is to apply the logic it uses to other realms of human experience,” says psychology professor Noam Shpancer. “One could, for example, liken abstinence-only education to telling young people that the way to avoid car accidents is by not driving.”

Aside from mere analogies, studies have shown that abstinence-only programs are not very effective in terms of curtailing risky sexual behavior and detrimental sex-related outcomes among teenagers. In the 80s, for example, Congress allocated 1.7 billion state and federal dollars to abstinence-only programs. In 2007, a study commissioned by the federal government concluded that abstinence-only education does not deter teens from engaging in sex or having multiple partners.

It stands to reason then that a radical new approach is needed in terms of sex education, one that is focused on safety and communication—as opposed to guilt and fear. That’s where sex positive education comes into play.

“Sex positive sex education stresses consent and pleasure,” Planned Parenthood’s education team writes. “Instead of scaring students away from sexual activity with shame and exaggerated statistics, sex-positive sex education arms students with knowledge on how to have a healthy, safe and fun sex life. It also emphasizes healthy communication, birth control, protection, and pleasure.”

Another benefit of this approach is that it touches on aspects of sexuality that are outside of hetero norm, such as LGBTQ+ orientations and polyamorous relationships.

“Using sex positive approaches when communicating with adolescents about sexual health supports the ability of people to make healthy personal choices and can reduce stigma and shame,” the Adolescent Health Initiative states. “When we view sexuality as developmentally normal, avoid moralistic value statements, and promote diversity in sexuality, we contribute to a climate of respect, where young people feel more comfortable disclosing their concerns and behaviors.”

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