Mass. can do a better job on sexual and relationship education

Current health education guidelines not updated since 1999

MASSACHUSETTS TEENS deserve to live healthy lives free from violence, but our public schools are failing them. As pediatricians, we see how the inadequacy of sex and relationship education in our schools puts children and teens at risk for sexual assault. We have cared for teens in our medical practices who have experienced sexual violence. No one should have to help a teen tell their parents what happened, or convince someone that being assaulted was not their fault, or try to find a way to help a young person who wakes up from nightmares every night; unfortunately, we have done these things too many times.

Our worry that we will see more teens in our offices who are experiencing the physical and emotional distress that follows a sexual assault is not unfounded. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sheds light on the scope of this issue and reports that 11 percent of high school students have experienced sexual violence.

Furthermore, the proportion of female students reporting sexual violence is on the rise (increased to 18 percent in 2021 from 15 percent in 2017). The number of teens reporting sexual assaults is already too high, but given that many sexual assaults are never reported, these statistics likely underrepresent the true number of teens affected.

The good news is that sex and relationship education that is comprehensive and medically accurate can help. This type of high-quality sex and relationship education has been shown to effectively teach youth how to recognize and report sexual assault and prevent dating violence.

The bad news is that Massachusetts is not doing enough to teach students these necessary skills. Our state’s health education guidelines, which inform the sex and relationship education taught in our schools, have not been updated since 1999. This means that if sex and relationship education is taught in our schools, the lessons could be woefully outdated – and not doing enough to curb the alarming rise in sexual assaults.

We believe that Massachusetts needs sex and relationship education that is comprehensive and medically accurate, and that passing the Healthy Youth Act in 2023 is the best way to get it. The Healthy Youth Act will require public schools that teach sex and relationship education to teach accurate, age-appropriate, consent-based, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ)-inclusive information.

Sexual assault is a serious issue affecting Massachusetts teens. Survivors of sexual assault can experience significant short- and long-term impacts on their physical and emotional well-being. Such complications include unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Survivors of sexual assault can also experience disruptions in school or work, which can have a profound social and economic impact.

Sexual assault can happen to anyone; however, some teens are at higher risk of experiencing sexual violence. Students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are 4.4 times more likely to experience sexual assault than their heterosexual peers.

Another study found that transgender and nonbinary youth were twice as likely to experience sexual violence compared to cisgender youth. Given these disparities, inclusion of sex and relationship education in Massachusetts public schools that is LGBTQ-affirming is essential to decrease stigma and reduce violence.

Sex and relationship education does not encourage or increase youth sexual behaviors. In fact, sex and relationship education that is comprehensive and medically accurate is more effective at delaying age of first sex compared to abstinence-only education. Additionally, the Healthy Youth Act empowers parents to be knowledgeable about their school’s sex and relationship education curriculum and allows parents to opt their child out of all or certain lessons.

As pediatricians in Massachusetts, we have seen the profound impact of sexual assault on survivors and know that Massachusetts can do better. The prevention of sexual violence through sex and relationship education that is comprehensive, medically accurate, age appropriate, and LGBTQ-inclusive can make a difference.

We can’t let another Sexual Assault Awareness Month come and go without updated guidelines in place to ensure students learn the information they need to lead healthy and safe lives. Together, we can demand that the Massachusetts Legislature put teens first and pass the Healthy Youth Act in 2023.

Amanda Bryson and Susan Wiener are board-certified pediatricians affiliated with Harvard Medical School who treats teens and young adults.