Without federal abortion rights, comprehensive sex education (CSE)—which covers topics like sexual health, reproduction, gender and sexual orientation, consent, relationships, and decision-making—is more critical than ever. Studies show that comprehensive sex education has beneficial health outcomes, including reducing sexual risk behaviors and lessening teen pregnancy rates. However, with no federal sex education mandates, this education is left in the hands of state and local districts. The fall of Roe v. Wade created an opportunity to further dismantle existing sex education–programs that were already under attack. Last year, Republican lawmakers proposed legislation that would amend sex ed programs or eradicate them entirely. These decisions put all students at risk, but especially those who are low-income. 

“Around the country, sex education is under attack in a concerted effort by far-right activists to ensure that only their values are taught,” explained Brittany McBride, associate director for sex education at Advocates for Youth. “Lower-income students [especially] face many obstacles to good health and positive futures, including less access to health care and less access to education generally, and that education is often less resourced than students attending schools in affluent neighborhoods.”

According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), only five states have laws requiring CSE. Though 29 states and the District of Columbia require sex education, 16 provide abstinence-only education and 13 do not require sex education or HIV education to be medically accurate, age-appropriate, culturally responsive, or evidence-based. 

For low-income students, access to CSE is even more scarce, according to Karla Altmayer, co-founder and co-director of Healing to Action, an organization dedicated to ending gender-based violence. Altmayer explained that any measures that prevent teens from learning about bodily autonomy, consent culture, and gender and sexuality will disproportionately affect Black and brown communities that are historically low-income. Even before Roe’s fall, these communities were feeling the effects of inequitably distributed sex education according to information obtained by Healing to Action through a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA). The 2018 FOIA showed that 70% of Chicago Public Schools did not receive sexual health education per the Board of Education’s policy. Most of these schools were in the south and west sides of the city—areas largely populated by lower-income Black and Latinx people.

“With the fall of Roe now, those students and caregiver communities are even more vulnerable to misinformation,” Altmayer said. 

A survey published in the Journal of Adolescent Health also found that inequities in sex education access disproportionately impact BIPOC teens. For example, Black adolescents were less likely than white adolescents to receive information through school sexual education on where to obtain birth control before having sex for the first time.

Without essential education, educators, school authorities, and policymakers are denying students the information they need to make informed decisions about their bodies and lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lack of knowledge is a principal reason for not using contraception. 

Lack of sex education can also lead to worse health outcomes. Research supports that both economic and racial disparities impact rates of sexually-transmitted infections among low-income young adults.

“Taking sex education out of the equation means one more resource [students are] losing, which at times might contain life-saving information,” McBride said. “It should be that we’re doing everything we can to help these students achieve the futures they want by providing them with the information and skills they need to make healthy decisions now and into the future.”

Altmayer echoed this sentiment, noting that dismantling sex education will create a ripple effect that impacts future generations. Healing to Action’s SexEd Works campaign sees sex education as crucial to preventing generational violence.

“It’s not just the individual who didn’t receive the information, but the youth that comes afterward,” said Altmayer. “When our survivor-leaders learned about the concept of consent, they immediately connected the dots between how a culture of consent could help reduce gun and gang violence among young men.”

According to Altmayer, funding is the key to the continuation and equitable implementation of sex ed programs–and so is providing in-depth education to teachers and principals. This is especially critical for students from lower-income districts, which already receive less state and local funding. Because sex education funding is also left to state and local governments, lower-income communities are less likely to receive ample support. 

“By investing in programs that give youth life-saving tools and engage the adults in their communities, we begin to really address the serious misinformation problem that can help transform the way how a community understands this issue and others like abortion,” Altmayer said. 

McBride said parents have significant influence on the implementation of sex ed in their school districts, but many opt out of these conversations. To combat this, Advocates for Youth have a blueprint for parents, caregivers, educators, and other advocates invested in ensuring quality sex ed in schools. The guideline provides sample messaging, strategies to combat misinformation, and ways to get involved. Advocates for Youth also sponsors Youth Activist Alliances, a network of youth organizers who run campaigns in support of sex education and reproductive justice initiatives in their states.

“For us, this is a grassroots issue that requires deep relationship-building in communities. Our hope is that we can develop a model for creating this intergenerational transformation that can be adapted and replicated for different communities,” Altmayer said. 

Xenia Ellenbogen (she/they) is a freelance reproductive rights and mental health writer. She focuses on reproductive health and justice, LGBTQIA+ issues, menstrual equity, and trauma. She has a BA in writing...