UNESCO Guidance Can Evolve Texas Sex Ed to Address the Real Issues Young People Face Today
By Eleni Pacheco
“Too many young people still make the transition from childhood to adulthood receiving inaccurate, incomplete, or judgment-laden information affecting their physical, social, and emotional development.”
- The United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
Global leaders from the United Nations and World Health Organization have recognized that sex ed has the potential to be an “iterative and mutually reinforcing process” that changes lives for the better. Sex education offers critical and foundational knowledge, the space to adjust attitudes that shape one’s understanding of themselves and the world, and the skills to take action using that information and understanding. Yet sex ed programs often fail to complete this process, negating certain information and skills or infusing lessons with values that don’t leave room for students to develop their own attitudes and beliefs. Many schools don’t allow the instruction of basic sexual health management skills such as condom use, particularly where abstinence-only lesson plans are centered on waiting till marriage. Fear and shame-based approaches to sexual risk reduction fail to make space for students to fully understand both the risks they face and the values they and their communities hold. The abstinence-only programs that do include information beyond refusal skills only focus on risk and other negative aspects of sexual behavior. Teaching only risk and harm does not effectively address sexual decision-making. It relies on judgment and shame to prescribe abstinence, going so far as to compare people who have had sex to chewed gum, ripped up paper hearts, or cups full of saliva. This year we have the opportunity to shift the approach to sex ed statewide by influencing the State Board of Education as they revise health education standards. Experts from Healthy Futures, The Texas Campaign, and Ntarupt have come together to outline attainable goals for the 2020 sex ed revisions. We’ve reviewed and amended the current Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards, including language and information from up-to-date journals, including the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Sexuality Education Standards. Our main goals are to ensure sex ed is, at its core, medically accurate, science-based, and includes options and information beyond abstinence. Two years ago, UNESCO updated the International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education in response to the uprising of sexual assault advocacy and the #MeToo movement. The organization continues to assess global sexual health trends to revise standards for moments like this: to enable authorities to build sustainable and comprehensive curricula with support and guidance. It’s meant to provide a framework for designing quality programs by defining and identifying sexual health needs, outlining the essential components of effective sex ed, and addressing the human elements of support, commitment, and delivery. The Guidance takes a human rights approach to sex education, keeping in consideration the cultural diversity and various environments in which young people are developing their sexual selves. The human rights approach is founded in the philosophy that one can both acknowledge their right to autonomy and consent while respecting other’s right to do the same. It works to establish a foundation for equality and autonomy, similarly to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), a tool widely used by Texas educators that centers on the “knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” According to UNESCO officials, “the right of every individual to education and to the highest attainable standard of health” must be situated in local social contexts. They’ve developed this framework based on evidence that shows that stigma, shame, and ignorance surrounding sexuality contributes to exploitation, harm, and limited personal agency that extends into adulthood. As social mammals, humans have questions and curiosities about themselves and others that can be based on the sexual and gendered messages we receive from early on. The Guidance works to co-create an appropriate sequence of information that serves as building blocks, fitting into young people’s lives where they are relevant to understanding their current reality and prepare them for the next phase of their lives. The standards determined by the State Board of Education are the minimum requirements for sex ed. Educators and program coordinators can go above and beyond the TEKS, using tools like the UNESCO Technical Guidance to build more comprehensive and inclusive curricula for all Texas students. Interested in up-to-date, innovative sex ed? We're working on it! Reach out to our program director, Anthony, to see how you can get involved.