“More than 8 out of 10 parents want their kids to get sex education in middle and high school and for their children to learn all things related to STIs, consent, healthy relationships, and self-esteem. Yet only three states in the U.S. have implemented mandatory age-appropriate sex education curriculums, and New York is not one of them.”

Walton DOE Campus
The Walton High School campus in the Bronx.

This new year brings about a new election cycle and a critical opportunity to fight for our communities.  With the overturn of Roe v. Wade, never in our recent history has there been a more decisive moment to politically engage for young people’s future and bodily autonomy.

Given the onslaught of attacks on our sexual and reproductive freedom, this election year is a time for us to think about what kind of legacy we want to leave for our future generations—how can we use our vote to set them up for success? What is at the root of an empowered generation? And what kind of education do we want them to have for a healthier, autonomous life?

I’m writing this not just a sexual and reproductive health educator for Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, but as the parent of an LGTBQIA+ teen, and I believe comprehensive, age-appropriate, sex education should be an essential part of my child’s life. As a leader in sexual and reproductive health, Planned Parenthood has conducted national surveys about comprehensive sexuality education to better understand parents’ views on the subject, and the findings have been very telling.

More than 8 out of 10 parents want their kids to get sex education in middle and high school and for their children to learn all things related to STIs, consent, healthy relationships, and self-esteem. Yet only three states in the U.S. have implemented mandatory age-appropriate sex education curriculums, and New York is not one of them.

Though New York has been a landmark state for sexual and reproductive access, New York youth are missing the kind of education they need—according to a 2022 ACLU report, about 50 percent of high school students in New York reported engaging in sexual intercourse and of these, only 11 percent reported using a prevention method to protect against unplanned pregnancy and STIs. Nearly one-third of young women who have dropped out of high school cite early pregnancy or parenthood as a key reason. In addition, teenagers ages 15 to 19 represent more than 50 percent of new STI cases in our state and 10 percent of New York teenagers report experiencing physical dating violence.

Evidence shows that having comprehensive sex education in our state keeps our youth safe and helps them set boundaries, helps them build autonomy, and sets them up for a life of better and healthier choices. Through my own journey, I’ve seen firsthand the difference it makes when accurate information based on respect, compassion and understanding is available to me, my child and their peers, and I’ve also had to witness the damaging discriminatory effects that a lack of sex education could have on my child’s life. 

As I was learning more about raising an LBGTBQIA+ teen, a common concern amongst parents was that allowing children to transition at a young age may potentially lead to future regrets—when looking into it more, I discovered this concern was not based on facts or studies on gender-affirming care, but on fear and misinformation. No one, no matter who they are, should have to move through the world feeling the isolation that comes with having to question their identity because their peers and the adults in their life don’t have access to the proper tools and information to understand their unique experiences. This is especially true for LGBTQ youth, young people who don’t speak English, young people with disabilities and young people who are unhoused. 

In America, 7.2 percent of adults identify as non-heterosexual, and one in five Gen Zers identify under the LGTBQIA+ umbrella according to this 2023 Gallup Poll. This should be reason enough to support our youth with the kind of education that empowers them with knowledge and skills to grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults. 

But even for our youth who do not fall under the LGTBQIA+ umbrella, access to comprehensive sexual and relational education allows them to have better self-esteem, a thorough understanding of who they are and how their bodies work, and the knowledge that they could have healthy and autonomous relationships with themselves and each other. Years of research shows that kids who don’t get sex education are more likely to experience unintended pregnancy, STIs, bullying, and unhealthy relationships. 

Lacking access to comprehensive sex education is part of a larger, coordinated campaign that anti-progress groups have been engaging in since even before the overturn of Roe vs. Wade in 2022. Many of the states that limit what our youth learn regarding gender, relationships and sexuality are the same states that have restricted access to abortion and reproductive freedom—states like Texas, Florida, Georgia and Utah.

Not only are these states leading attacks on bodily autonomy, but overturning the right to abortion opened the gates for them to further deprive our youth of the information necessary to remain healthy and educated. Much like abortion, most U.S. adults believe in the power of comprehensive sex education, yet our elected leaders prove time and again that they do not have our best interest in mind, but instead are concerned with elevating politically motivated agendas against sexual and reproductive freedom. 

Contrary to what conservative groups believe, when we talk about comprehensive sex education we’re not simply referring to courses that teach our children how to have sex, but instead an age-appropriate education curriculum for grades K to 12 that teaches our children everything from healthy relationships, pregnancy, consent, body image, peer pressure, identity, gender and orientation, disease prevention, resources, etc., depending on what grade they are in and what information is relevant to their development.

Unfortunately, a lot of these aspects of comprehensive sex ed are not being taught at schools, or if they are, health or sex educators resort to scare tactics, such as only teaching about HIV and STI prevention or only advocating for abstinence—this is true not only for New York’s education system but for other states that lack bills and legislation that encourage comprehensive sex and reproductive health education.  This year is our chance to elect to office the kind of leaders that will advocate and fight for our children’s future and for everyone’s right to self-determination and sexual and reproductive freedom, which starts with medically accurate, culturally responsive and inclusive education.

Planned Parenthood of Greater New York will be in Albany for our annual Day of Action on Jan. 24  to demand that our elected leaders expand access to the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health care, including comprehensive sexuality education for all New York youth, and to further protect our right to bodily autonomy and the future our youth deserve.

 Ale Pedraza Buenahora is the press coordinator and Jessica Reyes the project manager for youth programs at Planned Parenthood of Greater New York.