The State of Sex Ed in Colorado and Beyond

The State of Sex Ed in Colorado and Beyond

By Liz McKay, Policy and Education Intern
March 3, 2016

The healthy development of young people is inextricably linked with access to comprehensive sex education. Although negative sexual health outcomes among youth have been declining for decades, controversy still exists over whether young people should be allowed access to comprehensive sex education within their schools. Coloradans overwhelmingly support it: 88% of youth and 85% of parents voiced their support in recent surveys. In response, Colorado lawmakers have supported the sexual health and wellbeing of young people by enacting a policy requiring all schools that choose to teach sex education to utilize programs that are comprehensive and science-based.

Passed in 2013, Colorado’s updated sex education law, HB13-1081, requires that if a school chooses to teach sex education, then the program must be comprehensive and scientifically accurate. These curriculum standards are explicitly defined within the text of the law and so, by definition, abstinence-only programs do not qualify under the defined standards. The law also requires that schools teaching comprehensive sex education provide an opt-out notice for parents. Although this is a major step-up from states that promote largely ineffective abstinence-only programs, the “if-then” Colorado law still leaves many young people without access to critical sexual health information. In order to support the healthy sexual development of youth, it is imperative that all young people have access to comprehensive sex education in order to make healthy and informed decisions regarding their sexual health.

Mirroring national trends, the teen birth rate in Colorado has been steadily falling over the past few decades. In just the last five years alone, the state of Colorado has seen a 40% decrease in teen births, largely attributed to temporary access to affordable long-acting reversible contraception (LARC).1 Additionally, STI rates among young people have fallen both nationally and in Colorado: Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and HIV have all seen significant decreases since 2009.1 Although these outcomes are very promising, disparities still exist among marginalized populations both nationally and state-wide. Research shows that young people who identify as sexual minorities are more likely than their straight-identified peers to experience negative sexual health outcomes. In Colorado, youth of color are significantly more likely to experience a birth. This is especially true for Latina teens, for whom the birth rate is almost three times higher than that of their white peers.1 Youth of color also tend to have higher rates of STIs than white youth. These groups have seen the most dramatic decrease in teen birth rates over the past 15 years1, which testifies to the fact that recent increases in access to comprehensive and culturally inclusive sex ed and affordable health services is especially effective for marginalized youth. These young people are often caught in the crossfire of social, economic, and cultural disparities such as income inequality and under-funded schools, factors which can greatly influence their sexual health outcomes. In order to alleviate these disparities, all young people regardless of race, gender, class, location, or sexual orientation need to have access to comprehensive sex education that contains information relevant to their needs.

As divisive political battles over sex education persist across the country, the importance of comprehensive sex education continues to become increasingly clear. Currently, only 23 states and the District of Columbia mandate that schools teach sex education.2 Colorado is not counted among these states because it encourages, but does not mandate, sex education. The declining rates of teen birth and STI infections have encouraged lawmakers, educators, and parents to push for continued access to comprehensive sex education for all young people. Most notably, President Obama’s FY17 budget allocated an additional $4 million to Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs and $13.5 million to the Title X family planning program while proposing to eliminate all Title V Abstinence-Only funding. Although political maneuvering will probably prevent the budget in its current form from becoming a reality, it is an important step in moving the country forward on improved sexual health education and programs.

The state of sex education across the country and Colorado is improving, but there is still work to be done. The United States still has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the Western Hemisphere. Access to scientific, comprehensive sex education is still based largely on where youth live, their race, and their sexual orientation. In order to empower young people to make informed decisions about their sexual health, all young people must have access to scientific, comprehensive sex education.

1Bolden, R. (2015). State of Adolescent Sexual Health in Colorado. Colorado Youth Matter. September 2015. Denver, CO.
1Guttmacher Institute. (2016). State Policies in Brief: Sex and HIV Education. Retrieved from //www.guttmacher.org/statecenter/spibs/spibs/spib_SE.pdf