How Should Illinois Schools Teach Sex Education?

The Illinois State Board of Education last month renewed a federal grant that bankrolls abstinence-based sex education programs in schools across the state.

Under state law, those schools – and every school that chooses to teach sex ed – will also have to include a curriculum on contraceptives, like condoms or birth control, as well as abstinence.

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But is this so-called comprehensive approach to sex ed backed up by results? And if so, what do they tell us?

Brittany Merritt is the executive director of the Chicago office of Peer Health Exchange, a nonprofit that teaches a broad health curriculum, including sex education, in schools primarily on the city’s South and Southwest sides.

She says her group’s approach to sex ed is “not just teaching young people that abstinence is a normal and healthy choice, but giving them all the options, should they decide to engage, that they have all of the resources to make a healthy decision for themselves.”

That includes giving kids information on different contraceptives and sexual health options.

“We are not telling young people what to do or what not to do,” Merritt said. “Our goal is to destigmatize sex and mental health, and providing abstinence-only education perpetuates and shames young people for engaging [in sex] outside of marriage … choosing abstinence is also a healthy choice, but if that is not the choice, what are your other options?”

Tory Libby, program director of the education nonprofit Teen Decision, approaches the issue differently. 

Libby says her group reaches around 8,000 middle and high school students every year, mostly in classroom settings. They teach what’s described as a sexual risk avoidance message which emphasizes abstinence as the safest option for kids thinking about sex.

Libby says she also talk about contraception, but often while highlighting the failure rates of contraceptives like condoms. 

“I’m giving [students] accurate factual information but I am not saying this is your solution. I’m saying this is a solution that people have sometimes, but [asking] is this the best solution? Are there still risks? Then I talk about abstinence, what it might do to help you avoid the consequences.”

Libby says programs that give out contraceptives or talk about the range of options can send mix messages to kids learning about sex.

“I don’t believe that safe sex, according to the condom message, is actually safe. I want to give [kids] the safest, healthiest choice,” she said.

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