Emily Rothman, Professor and Chair, Occupational Therapy; and Professor of Community Health Sciences, Boston University

In June 2023, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts shared with the public a draft of a new framework that will guide how elementary, middle and high schools in the state approach sex education.

The last time Massachusetts issued guidelines that specify expectations for what Massachusetts students learn about sex in schools was 24 years ago, when most U.S. homes were not yet internet-connected.

The new guidelines are part of a larger framework that addresses many aspects of health, including physical education, nutrition and hygiene. They include important improvements over the 1999 version, including standards that pertain to the well-being of gender and sexual minority populations. That’s noteworthy, given that other U.S. states have recently prohibited classroom education about gender identity and sexual orientation.

The draft Massachusetts framework has been in development since 2018 but is not yet final. After a public comment period, which is open until Aug. 28, the framework is subject to approval by the commonwealth’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and could be adopted as early as the fall of 2023.

For information about sex, young people turn to online pornography more often than talking to friends or parents. Richard Bailey/Corbis via Getty Images

I’m a public health researcher who focuses on sex education and healthy relationships. I have co-developed and tested a new sex education module for high school students in Massachusetts with funding from the National Institutes of Health, so I read the part of the framework that deals with sex education with great interest.

I’ll provide some more detail on the Massachusetts framework below, but first it is important to understand the state of sex education in the U.S.

Sex education and pornography

Many young people in the U.S are not getting the sex education that they need. Currently, only 38 U.S. states and the District of Columbia mandate any kind of sex education. As a result, it isn’t surprising that fewer than half of U.S. adolescents say that they have received information about where to get birth control before having heterosexual intercourse for the first time. And the racial disparities are concerning: Black and Hispanic teens are less likely than white teens to receive education about prevention of sexually transmitted infections or HIV, or where to get birth control.

So where do teenagers and young adults go to get information about sex, in the absence of comprehensive sex education at school?

According to a nationally representative study that my team published in 2021, young adults in the U.S. are more likely to turn to pornography than to their friends, parents, doctors or any other source. That’s a problem, because pornography isn’t designed to relay medically accurate or helpful information about sex — it’s designed to get clicks or likes, make money and entertain the viewer.

Massachusetts is not one of the states that mandates sex education. However, state law does require all public schools to teach health education. As a local control state, Massachusetts issues frameworks and guidance and allows local school districts boards to decide how to implement them. This approach will continue with the new framework once adopted.

Importantly, the new Massachusetts framework recognizes the prevalence of pornography, and it addresses other critical sex education topics for the modern world.

For example, the framework specifies that in grades 6 to 8, adolescents should learn about laws related to sexual digital imagery. This is important because otherwise they may not realize that possessing or sending nude digital photos of people younger than 18 years old is a crime even if the sender is also a minor.

The framework also suggests that adolescents should be able to analyze similarities and differences between friendships, romantic relationships and sexual relationships, and discuss various ways to show affection within each. It expects them to be able to define sexual consent and describe factors, such as drug and alcohol use, that can influence capacity to give consent. It recommends teaching strategies to help students recognize when someone is grooming or recruiting a young person for possible commercial sexual exploitation like human trafficking.

While these points are strong, I would like to see a recommendation that schools tell youth that mainstream online pornography is not a good source of information about sexual behavior.

A series of online games

Our research team, which includes Kimberly Nelson of Boston University,Ph.D student Julia Campbell of the University of North Carolina and BU masters student Tomeka Frieson, has been working on new sex education teaching materials for Massachusetts high schools for the past two years. As researchers, we endeavored to create an online sex education module that reflected the best available evidence and feedback that we got from young people.

Our teaching materials are in the form of short, online games that students engage with on their own time, and then come back to the classroom to discuss. One of the games has students order the effectiveness of 11 different contraceptive methods. Another provides them with information about ways pornography can provide unhelpful expectations about sex and sexuality. A third game invites students to act as an advice columnist to solve relationship problems for peers.

When we tested the materials with 54 teens ages 14-18 years old in Massachusetts in 2022, we found a statistically significant positive impact on a range of outcomes, from increased condom use to fewer experiences of abuse by a dating partner. We will partner with a number of Massachusetts high schools in the next several years to continue testing the impact of our module.

Reading the framework

In reading the new Massachusetts guidelines, our team noted several strengths of its approach.

First, the framework is evidence-based. In other words, the recommendations reflect the latest and best available research about how adolescents develop, learn and behave with regard to sex and sexuality.

Second, the guidance is developmentally and age-appropriate, with different recommendations for different grade levels, and with careful attention to diverse perspectives, cultural differences, and the importance of delivering material in a way that would not traumatize students.

Third, the framework encourages youths’ critical thinking, reasoning, decision-making and problem-solving.

It is my hope that Massachusetts will strengthen the guidance on pornography. If it does, the new framework will be well positioned to serve as a national model.