147269466What’s the goal of a school sex education program — or rather, what should that goal be?? Is it to shame kids and scare them away from the prospect of having sex? Is it to discharge a minimum level of responsibility on the school’s behalf by throwing a handful of condoms at kids and telling them what gonorrhea looks like? Or is it to try to prepare students as well as possible to navigate their future relationships as safely and as happily as possible?

We’ve talked about abstinence-only education here before, which works about as well as putting a plateful of cookies in front of a toddler and then saying, “NOPE” once before leaving the room. But new movements in public health suggest that even the kind of comprehensive sex ed provided by most schools isn’t as effective as it could be at preventing teen pregnancy and STD rates among young people. According to NPR, it turns out that teens need to hear about more than just the biological basics — what they also need to hear about is how to communicate and deal with power structures in a sexual relationship.

New sex ed programs that focus on gender dynamics and healthy relationships have been found to cut teen STD rates by as much as 80% — compared with 17% for traditional sex education. Apparently when kids are empowered to recognize that their relationship setup is a little more Fifty Shades of Grey and a little less Titanic, they’re better equipped to get themselves out of that dangerous situation. (Ooh, here’s an idea for a sex ed class activity: list all the ways that Edward in Twilight ticks off the checklist for abusive behaviors in a romantic partner.)

It’s never been enough to just warn kids what’s out there (penises! HIV! babies!) — especially when that list typically leaves off some pretty dangerous consequences (abusive partners! pressure to have sex before you’re ready or in a way you’re not comfortable with! a partner who doesn’t care about your pleasure or comfort!). Teens also need to hear about how to deal with these problems as they arise. Of course no one wants to deprive teenagers of the untold joys of struggling to jam a condom onto an overripe banana in front of a classroom of giggling peers, but maybe sex ed — truly comprehensive sex ed — shouldn’t begin and end with the act of sex itself.

(Feature image: Ivan Kmit / iStock / Getty)