Illinois Sex Education: State Bans Abstinence-Only Sex Ed in a Victory For the Real World

Earlier this week, the Illinois state legislature passed a bill that will require public schools that teach sex education in the state to provide students with information on contraception. In a victory for common sense, the legislation will reverse the current policy under which schools are only required to teach abstinence as part of their sex-education classes. The measure passed by 37 votes to 21, and Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, is expected to sign it into law.

The decision is a welcome one given that kids are always going to have sex, no matter how much some people might wish otherwise. It is natural. To think or hope that kids will not experiment with sex is just ridiculous. Moreover, to not teach medically accurate sex education that includes information on safe sex on the basis that you would rather people did not have sex is also highly irresponsible.

At present, public schools in Illinois have three options when it comes to sex education: 1) abstinence-only sex education, 2) a combination of abstinence and safe-sex procedures, and 3) to simply not teach sex education at all. Following the law change, however, schools will no longer have the option of teaching abstinence-only sex education classes. Under the current law, sex-education classes in Illinois are required to stress abstinence as "the expected norm," and "course material and instruction shall stress that pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until they are ready for marriage." State education officials say that while they do not have specific figures, they estimate that sex education in Illinois is divided evenly between the three options currently allowed.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, which aims to advance sexual and reproductive health through research, policy analysis, and public education, the use of contraception when teens first have sex is increasing:


Image credit: Guttmacher Institute

While this is an encouraging trend, more work still needs to be done to make sure that people are practicing safe sex. And teaching abstinence-only sex education does not help with this, especially given, as the Guttmacher Institute points out, by "their 19th birthday, seven in 10 female and male teens have had intercourse." Furthermore, back in April 2012 it argued that the recent "decline in teen births can be linked almost exclusively to improvements in teens’ contraceptive use," not to abstinence or abortions.

State Senator Linda Holmes, a Democrat, led the effort to change the existing law in Illinois, arguing that it is failing kids by not equipping them with the knowledge they need to practice safe sex. "In fantasy land, we teach our kids abstinence — and they listen. But we know they don’t necessarily follow that advice," she said. "They are going to be confronted with the issue of sex before they’re 21 years old, or 25, or whenever they decide to get married."

Banning abstinence-only sex education is a great step forward in Illinois. However, more still needs to be done, given that schools can still opt out of providing sex education altogether. Safe-sex education should be made mandatory across all public schools, as the Chicago public school system has recently done with a policy that requires "age-appropriate comprehensive sexual health information in every grade."

It is one thing to inform kids that abstinence is the best way not to contract sexual transmitted diseases and to avoid teen pregnancies. However, to not teach them how to have safe sex using contraception and to stigmatize sex by stressing abstinence as the expected norm is both is misguided and irresponsible. The reality is that kids will end up having sex at some point. And teaching safe sex does not mean that schools are going to be actively encouraging kids to have sex and that hypersexuality will suddenly become rife in Illinois schools. It simply means that kids will be better informed and safer when they do have sex.