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If there’s one subject that is guaranteed to ignite a storm of controversy in education, it’s how and when to teach young people about sex. Japan and the United States serve as case studies.

In what can be called at best an embarrassment, the education ministry oversaw the distribution of material to high school students in a health class incorrectly stating that 22 is the peak age for women to bear children.

The false information undermined student confidence in their teachers, who had little choice but to follow orders.

Sex education in the U.S. is not much better. In April, Congress increased to $75 million a year funding for programs that promote sexual abstinence until marriage, even though studies have shown that they have no effect on delaying sexual initiation or reducing the risk for unintended pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted diseases.

The proof is that despite similar programs in the past, the U.S. continues to have one the highest teen birthrates and some of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections in the industrialized world. Recognizing these realities, a Superior Court in California ruled in May that medically accurate sexual health information is “an important public right.”

The decision was the first time that an abstinence-until-marriage curriculum was declared to be medically inaccurate, prompting the director of reproductive justice policy at the American Civil Liberties Union to declare that it sent a clear message to other schools in California — and hopefully beyond — that “young people need complete, accurate health information required by law.”

The reality is that young people in both Japan and the U.S. are physically maturing much earlier than ever before. For example, the age of first menstruation has fallen at least two years since the beginning of the last century. Moreover, sexual images and information are now readily accessible by every teenager. It’s not surprising, therefore, that sexual activity among the young has increased dramatically and at a younger age than ever before.

Whether the reluctance in both countries to deal honestly with the subject is the result of hidden agendas or deeply rooted prudishness is hard to know.

But it’s time to acknowledge the permanent harm done to students by failing to address questions about the matter in a completely truthful way.

Other countries are far more progressive in dealing with sex education. For example, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, France and Germany take a much more realistic approach. They know that abstinence will not work for the vast majority of young people. Although there will never be a guaranteed way to protect them from the consequences of irresponsible sex, far more can be done in Japan and the U.S. before it is too late.

Culture no doubt plays an important role in determining what public schools teach about sex. But so does politics. For example, the declining birthrate in Japan is indeed troubling. Yet if the government wants to reverse the trend, which has far-reaching implications for the economy, it needs to direct its attention to policies beyond school. Misleading students is not the way to achieve the desired goal.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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