Illinois public schools will be required to include medically accurate information about birth control in their sex ed classes under a measure that the state legislature passed this week. HB 2675, which Gov. Pat Quinn (D) is expected to sign into law, will prohibit health classes from teaching abstinence-only curricula.
Illinois’ current law requires sex ed classes to emphasize abstinence as “the expected norm,” and stipulates that “course material and instruction shall stress that pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until they are ready for marriage.” Public schools can choose between teaching abstinence-only education, using a mix of stressing abstinence while providing comprehensive information about birth control and condoms, or simply declining to provide any sex ed instruction. Under HB 2675, schools won’t be able to choose the abstinence-only option anymore — they’ll need to either offer comprehensive information about prevention methods, or decide not to offer any sex ed courses whatsoever.
State Sen. Linda Holmes (D) spearheaded the measure because she doesn’t believe that abstinence-only curricula adequately equips teens with the resources they need to safeguard their sexual health. “In fantasy land, we teach our kids abstinence — and they listen. But we know they don’t necessarily follow that advice,” Holmes explained. “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.”
Holmes is right. By their 19th birthday, seven in ten American teens will have had sex. And even the Americans who grow up in socially conservative communities aren’t delaying sex until marriage — by some estimates, 80 percent of unmarried evangelical Christians have had sex at least once. But when those young people become sexually active, they often don’t understand how to effectively protect themselves. Since abstinence-only classes often mislead students about the facts about contraception, 60 percent of young adults underestimate birth control’s effectiveness and are more likely to skip it because they don’t believe it will make a difference.
Abstinence education can also have lasting consequences for adolescents’ sense of self-worth. Because messages emphasizing abstinence and sexual purity often teach students that sexual activity is something be ashamed of, the youth who receive those messages may internalize those feelings of guilt and shame.
While banning abstinence-only education is a step in the right direction, HB 2675 still allows Illinois schools to opt out of providing any type of sexual health education. Luckily, some school districts in the state have already taken matters into their own hands to ensure their students will receive the information they need. Chicago’s public school system recently instituted a standardized policy for requiring age-appropriate comprehensive sexual health information in every grade.