On the Cusp of a Sex Ed Revolution
Texas has its first opportunity in more than two decades to address gaps in its approach to sex ed.
“During gym class, they separated the boys from the girls and the coach talked to us about puberty, and that was it,” Jose Pablo Rojas says, recalling the sum of his schoolbased sex education. As someone who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, Rojas, who attended high school in Brownsville, relied on the internet to learn about sex and health.
Texas has the seventh-highest teen pregnancy rate in the United States. High rates of sexually transmitted infections, sexual violence and maternal mortality — especially among Black women—also paint a troubling picture.
Now, Texas has its first opportunity in more than two decades to address gaps in its approach to sex ed. On June 29, more than 260 members of the public registered to virtually testify in front of the 15-member Texas Board of Education (BOE) about revising the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum standards. Those standards regulate instruction in Texas public schools, and the sections pertaining to health and sex ed have remained unchanged since 1997. As many speakers testified, they inadequately serve Texas students.
Sammie Sorsby-Jones, a recent high school graduate from Austin, described how she was in a sexually abusive relationship during her freshman year. When she approached her sex ed instructor about consent and healthy relationships, the response she received “made my suffering feel invalid, like I was imagining it, and furthered both my denial and my silence about being assaulted,” Sorsby-Jones said.
Maya Pilgrim, a Texas parent, testified about how the curriculum excludes children like hers. “I’m a parent of a nonbinary child who fears trusting their child to schools that neither value nor protect them,” she said.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex ed, but Texas is not among them. If a Texas school offers sex ed of its own accord, it is mandated to emphasize abstinence before marriage, per the Texas Education Code. Schools must teach that “if used consistently and correctly, [abstinence is] the only method that is  percent effective in preventing pregnancy.”
Advocacy organizations are proposing a series of updates to the Texas standards, including education on age-appropriate consent, sexual orientation, gender identity, contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections. A 2014 study from the American Public Health Association shows this more inclusive approach to sex ed lays the groundwork for healthy relationships, increased contraceptive use, fewer teen pregnancies and, especially for LGBTQ youth, less bullying, harassment and violence.
Because of the size of the Texas education market and its nearly 5.5 million schoolchildren, the state has long been catered to by the entire U.S. academic textbook industry. While its influence as a curriculum trendsetter may have waned in recent years (not least because of new digital technology that allows publishers to more easily customize publications), a revision to the state’s sex ed instruction could potentially influence what students learn across the country.
Revisions to the TEKS curriculum could also spur a political and legislative reckoning. “It is important to get elected officials on the record about whether they agree it is time for change and for teaching the truth,” says Dan Quinn, research director and press secretary at the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based grassroots social justice organization. A new curriculum “could demonstrate to lawmakers that it is past time to make legislative changes that finally address reality rather than perpetuate failed policies put in place long ago mostly to please conservative culture warriors.” If change can happen in “a traditionally conservative state like Texas, [it] could open doors to change in other states as well,” Quinn adds.
A 2020 poll by the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found the overwhelming majority of Texans, including 68% of Republicans, support sex ed that goes beyond abstinence-only education, known as “abstinence-plus.” A majority also support teaching about consent and boundaries, sexual orientation, gender identification and contraception. An overwhelming, bipartisan public supports the proposed revisions to TEKS.
“These topics can be taught in an abstinence-first way that fully aligns with … the Texas Education Code,” says Jen Biundo, director of policy and data at the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. But if more inclusive standards are passed, it’s unclear how much longer the state’s statute on abstinence can remain politically tenable. In this sense, Texas could be a bellwether for inclusive and comprehensive sex ed in a historically red state.
Working groups made up of experts and educators are currently working on proposed revisions to the TEKS, and there will be a second hearing based on these changes in September. In November, the Texas BOE will hold its final hearing, then vote whether to adopt the standards. The public registration period to testify will take place in September.
In terms of the risks faced by youth without an education in inclusive, fact-based sexual health, Jose Pablo Rojas says, “If nobody is there to prepare you, then you are basically a sitting duck.”