Nearly half of U.S. high school students report being sexually active, with 15 percent saying that they have had at least four or more sexual partners. Those stats illustrate how critical HIV prevention education is for this population; and how troubling it is that fewer than one in four sexually active teenagers have been tested for HIV.
High school years are supposed to be challenging, to push teens to learn and grow. Risk-takers by nature, teenagers need parents and schools to set boundaries and provide the critical information necessary to keep them safe. Not providing them with safer sex education essentially forces teens to take unneccessary risks. It's a little like letting them behind the wheel without teaching them to drive first.
The new report, published in the journal Pediatrics illuminates the incredible failure of public schools, educators and parents to meet young people where they are and address their behavior as it is, not how they think it should be.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this low rate of testing among sexually active youth has remained constant over the past eight years. It is all the more troubling considering HIV infections are up by 132.5 percent among young gay and bisexual males ages 13 to 24. This demographic also represents 25 percent of the estimated 50,000 people diagnosed with HIV every year. Furthermore, 60 percent of youth living with HIV are unaware of their status. Beyond HIV, the CDC reports almost half of the 20 million new STIs contracted each year are among people aged 15 to 24.
All of this information should make it apparent that comprehensive, LGBT-inclusive sex education is urgently needed for American teens; yet such programs are virtually non-existent in most public school systems.
Currently, less than half of the states require sex education to be taught in schools, with only 12 requiring sexual orientation be included in that education. That inclusion isn't always a good thing: for example, in Alabama, schools are required to teach that “homosexuality is an unacceptable, criminal lifestyle.” And eight other states' legislatures have banned public schools from discussing homosexuality in a positive manner.
Given the absence or inadequacy of sexual education in the U.S., it's no surprise that many teens underestimate their risk for contracting HIV. The CDC data shows that nine out of every 100,000 new HIV infections were from people ages 15 to 19. However, that rate has tripled for people under 24, highlighting how ill-equipped our youth (particularly young gay and bisexual men) are to avoid getting or transmitting HIV.
The Gay Lesbian and Straight Education (GLSEN) 2013 National School Climate Survey reported that only five percent of LGBT students had seen positive representations of same-sex topics in their health classes — but that could be about to change.
Schools have already become the new gay rights battleground for activists determined to end the culture of bullying. Now that marriage equality has been secured, some advocates believe the next rallying cry will be for LGBT-inclusive content to be incorporated into grade school curriculums.
“There is so much difference of opinion in this country about what kids should learn about sexuality that the default position of a lot of schools is just to do the bare minimum to not invite controversy. By doing that we are missing the mark,” Ellen Kahn, director of the Human Rights Campaign's Children, Youth and Families Program, told the Boston Globe.
In September 2015, HRC teamed up with Planned Parenthood to create an initiative that helps teachers talk more openly about topics of sexual health and safer sex for LGBT students. In addition to promoting HIV testing and prevention, the initiative also focuses on bisexual and lesbian girls, who experience twice the risk of unintended pregnancy compared to their heterosexual counterparts.