Bolstering the nation’s strongest sex education laws, as federal government pushes abstinence only

Joan McGuire

Oregon has the most comprehensive sex ed standards in the country. School districts are scrambling to catch up.

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New sex education standards that stress inclusivity and equity take effect this week with the start of the school year.

By and large consensus exists on the progressive principles, but questions remain about whether funding and curriculum development can catch up. Misaligned federal and state approaches to sex ed add another complication.

Oregon sets one of the highest bars for sex education in the country. The state mandates that curricula developed by each of the 197 school districts align with the latest medical and psychological research.

“In Oregon we have the most holistic and recognized sex education laws,” says Camelia Hison, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Columbia-Willamette and the private sector co-chair of the Oregon Youth Sexual Health Partnership, a committee that analyzes the state’s progress in sexual health education.

“We’re kind of championing this throughout the United States.”

The new benchmarks, developed by the state Department of Education, address equity and inclusion of transgender and non-binary students; they also target violence prevention and anatomy at younger ages and healthy relationships and consent.

“They really expand on the sexual health piece,” says Sasha Grenier, sexual health specialist at the Oregon Department of Education. “Lots of school districts are figuring out how to roll out these different elements.”


Not all of them are measuring up. Individual school districts develop plans and decide on curricula to meet the standards, but some cash-strapped districts must choose a math teacher over a health educator.

Many teachers lack time to attend trainings and cover all of the required content. Plus, curriculum development lags behind the latest science. A 2017 review of ten curricula from Sexual Assault Task Force found that none met more than 71% of the standards. “Shifting Boundaries,” a sixth- to eighth-grade violence prevention curriculum, complied with only 29%.

“There aren’t a lot of curricula out there that are comprehensive enough for how comprehensive Oregon’s policy is,” says Kris Gowen, a Portland-based sex education author and consultant. “It’s a really interesting challenge.”

Another hurdle is the federal government.

The Trump Administration would like to see funding go toward “sexual risk avoidance,” another term for abstinence-only education. This philosophy holds that abstaining from sex is the only effective way to prevent pregnancy. Oregon instead mandates a comprehensive, or abstinence-based approach. Educators present a menu of options, including abstinence, alongside abortion and birth control.

“One of the things I appreciate about the newer standards is that by law the information should be medically accurate,” says Maureen Callahan, executive director of teaching and learning at the Clackamas School District. “This is not about values. This is about medically accurate information.”  

The disconnect between state and federal policy has led to friction in the federal grant process. In June, Multnomah County filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration for changing the terms of federal teen pregnancy prevention funds totaling $1,249,999. The rule changes, enacted in the third-year of the five-year grant, make it harder for the county to compete for funding.

Other priorities seem to be at odds.

A federal grant of $818,631, from the Title V Abstinence Only Until Marriage Education Program, funds programs that meet requirements as  “teach that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity,” and “teach that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”

The Oregon Department of Human Services put this funding toward the recently revised “My Future, My Choice” curriculum in 14 school districts. While it emphasizes abstinence as the healthiest choice for sixth graders, the curriculum is comprehensive.

Any disconnect at the federal level is not replicated in local politics. According to Gowen, the urban-rural divide that overshadows so much of Oregon politics seems absent from sex education “A lot of the conservative voice comes from the Portland metro area,” she says, “and a lot of progressive stuff comes from rural areas.”

One exception is George. When the book about a transgender child was included in the statewide Battle of the Books reading competition, it drew objections from two school districts, Cascade and Hermiston. But, says Tricia Mooney, the district’s interim superintendent, they objected on the grounds of pornographic references, not gender politics. Hermiston in many cases allows transgender students to choose either male or female sex ed classes. 

That said, a district may follow state sex ed standards, while taking a more conservative stance in other aspects of school operations.  

Hermiston, for example, does not offer birth control in its school’s wellness centers. “If a girl goes into a wellness center and says, ‘I want to be on birth control,’ those appointments go through a practitioner,” says Mooney. “Abstinence is what we want to promote for our kids.”

Sex ed today takes place in the classroom and health care centers, on the internet and amid a complex web of relationships and gender identities.

The new standards adapt to this evolving landscape, but it remains to be seen whether the ideals will prove too cutting-edge for curriculum companies and overworked educators, and if they can flourish without federal support.  

“We’re moving away from the monolithic textbook, especially for health,” says Portland Public Schools health and physical education curriculum specialist Jenny Withycombe. “It’s really forced curriculum companies to rethink how they do their work.”


The latest numbers show Oregon’s strict sex ed standards are working. Teen pregnancy rates dropped from 35 per 1,000 in 2007 to 17 per 1,000 in 2016, according to figures from Children First for Oregon. Most teens now use some form of birth control if they have sex, according to the annual Oregon Healthy Teens survey conducted by the Oregon Health Authority. The surveyors found that 59% of 11th graders who have had sex used a condom the last time. 9.1% used a “highly effective” method, like an IUD or implant and 14.3% used “moderately effective” methods, including pills.

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