Sex Education

March 18, 2015

Birds, Bees and Bias…The Real Facts on Sex Ed

Valerie Huber

In the past 20 years, you might be surprised to learn that teen sex among high-schoolers has decreased by more than 15% - even in the midst of an increasingly sexualized culture. In fact, nearly 75% of the students most often targeted for sex education (15-17 year olds) have never had sex. Most of these teens, in fact, have had no sexual contact at all. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, for our sex education programs to reinforce these behaviors and even increase healthy decision-making by providing the encouragement and skills for teen sexual delay?

That is exactly what Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) abstinence programs do!

The SRA message resonates with teens because it is holistic and is consistent with the public health message that recognizes that every teen deserves the information and skills to avoid all the negative consequences of sex, so they have the best chance to thrive and achieve optimal sexual health.

By contrast, Sexual Risk Reduction (SRR) programs normalize teen sexual experimentation and focus almost exclusively on teen pregnancy prevention through the discussion of consent and effective contraceptive negotiation, but they fail to recognize that sex often affects a person beyond genitalia – and that while risk is reduced – risk still remains.  This approach is often called “comprehensive” sex education but it is anything but, yet 96% of all federal sex education dollars are devoted to such programs.

Youth deserve realistic and accurate information so they can successfully transition to adulthood without engaging in activities that have the potential of putting their future goals and dreams out of reach. That’s why SRA programs empower youth with the skills they need to become productive and successful members of society, to form healthy interpersonal relationships, and to delay sex until the children they eventually bear have the best chance for personal and economic success Conservatives and liberals alike have come to recognize the best formula for success involves following a sequence of behaviors that constitute the core for many SRA programs.  Called the “success sequence,” the Brookings Institute revealed that youth have only a 2% chance of living their adult lives in poverty if they graduate from at least high school, then get a job, then get married, and have children after marriage. So SRA programs contextualize the conversation about teen sex around the fact that the teens years are better focused on education and future goal-setting rather than sex, that avoiding all negative risk behaviors increase their chances for success, and that learning how to identify and build healthy relationships and avoid or escape unhealthy ones are important building blocks to future family formation.

Independent research of SRA programs confirms that this approach resonates with teens. In fact, about 25 behavioral studies demonstrate that students who are a part of SRA programs are:

  •     More likely to delay sex than their peers;

  •     Have fewer partners and less sex if they become sexually active;

  •     And are no less likely to use condoms than their peers. (Yes, SRA programs share medically accurate information about contraception and teens learn that while contraception may reduce some of the risks, only abstinence will prevent all the possible consequences of teen sex.)

The CDC confirms that age of sexual initiation is an important predictor of long-term sexual health. A growing body of social science research correlates sexual delay to increasing the probability of other positive outcomes, including educational, emotional, and relational success. Only SRA programs provide adequate practical skills to increase sexual delay. So-called  “comprehensive” sex ed programs insist they do the same, but a quick review of the most popular curricula show their claims fall flat.

Critics are quick to dismiss the SRA approach by repeating tired talking points, citing old, inaccurate, and ideologically-motivated “reports,” and defining the entire SRA field by predictably pointing to some outlier rogue program that is far out of the mainstream for our field. I hope that thoughtful citizens and professionals will refuse to be cowed by this intentional deception.  Instead, I hope they will focus on something much more important than winning a political debate – and that is on an entire generation of youth who deserve more than the soft bigotry of low expectations when it comes to their sexual health – and their future success.  I believe that when that becomes the focus – we will see agreement that SRA education MUST be given priority emphasis. And then the debate will no longer be IF the SRA message should be provided to youth, but HOW to assure that it is provided in the best and most relevant manner possible.

Valerie Huber is the President/CEO of the National Abstinence Education Association, a professional association in support of abstinence education as the optimal strategy for teen sexual health. Valerie previously served as the Title V Abstinence Education Coordinator for the state of Ohio.

U.S. Needs More Comprehensive Sex Education

Taryn Gal

The effectiveness and importance of comprehensive sex education to reduce adolescent engagement in risky sexual behaviors is a non-negotiable fact, yet, for years, the United States has given billions in federal funding to abstinence-only until marriage programs.  Recently, exciting shifts in funding show that state and federal governments are also, largely, in support of comprehensive sex education.

A history lacking in comprehensive sex education has resulted in a generation of youth without the knowledge and skills necessary to take responsibility for their bodies and health.  It should, therefore, not be surprising that:

  •      The US has the highest teen pregnancy rate among the world’s developed nations.

  •      46.8% of US high school students have had sex, including 64% of 12th graders[1]

  •      Over 40% of US high school students did not use a condom the last time they had sex[2]

  •      Only 14.7% of US high school students reported having ever been taught in school about AIDS or HIV infection[3]

  •      Youth ages 15-24 make up just 27% of the sexually active population, yet account for 50% of the new sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the US each year[4]

Of course, there are multiple complicatedly connected factors influencing adolescent engagement in risky sexual behavior (e.g., parents, peers, romantic partner, culture), not simply what is taught in school.  For the purposes of this argument, however, we will focus primarily on the necessity of comprehensive sex education in school, as that is where we can have the greatest influence.

Take a minute and think back to your experience in sex ed as a teenager – if you had formal sex ed at all.  I bet it was far from satisfactory and left questions unanswered.

If you grew up in the United States, it’s likely you received subpar sex education.  According to the Guttmacher Institute[5], only 22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education and only 33 require instruction about HIV/AIDS.  Only 13 states require that sex education be medically accurate, only two prohibit the program from promoting religion, and just 18 states and the District of Columbia require information on contraception.

Comprehensive sex education has been proven to be effective in delaying initiation of sex, reducing the frequency of sexual activity and number of sex partners, increasing condom and contraceptive use, and, thereby, reducing sexually transmitted infections.[6]  Comprehensive sex education does not, as opponents argue, increase sexual behaviors among youth or send mixed messages.  Experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, World Health Organization, and American Public Health Association recommend comprehensive sex education programs.

A comprehensive sex education must consist of replicating, with fidelity, evidence-based curricula containing factual and medically appropriate information on healthy relationships, decision-making, negotiation, body image, bullying, cybersafety, good touch/bad touch (sexual abuse), different kinds of family structures, gender roles, abortion, sexual orientation, STIs (including HPV vaccination), HIV/AIDS, contraception, abstinence, gender identity and expression, anatomy and physiology, puberty, and reproduction.

In order to be truly effective, sex education must be communicated early and often in a comprehensive, ongoing, age-appropriate, honest, and open conversation.  In order to have a sexually healthy adolescence, open communication must begin long before the teenage years – when a child is old enough to be naming body parts, be sexual abused, have same-sex parents, or ask questions. It’s never too early to start the conversation.

Opponents of comprehensive sex education are oftentimes proponents of abstinence only until marriage curricula.  Usually founded on moral beliefs, sex outside of a heterosexual monogamous marriage is framed as dangerous and shameful.  This outdated heteronormative approach has not only failed to produce sufficient evidence of effectiveness, but can be harmful to youth, as it does not provide the information necessary for adolescents to protect themselves and does not address the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning youth.  Evidence has shown that “increasing emphasis on abstinence education is positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates.”[7]  It is astonishing, yet apparent, the powerful role religion, morals, values, fear, and discomfort play in censoring knowledge we provide to youth.   

Moving forward, youth must be involved in the needs assessments and policy development pertaining to comprehensive sex education.  Youth voice is too often ignored or silenced.  As the Michigan Youth Advisory Council, coordinated by the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health, says, “Nothing about us without us.”  Educators must be educated to provide comprehensive sex education.  This includes parents (parent-child communication about sex is perhaps the most influential factor in adolescent engagement in risky sexual behavior), physicians, and health teachers, to name a few. If the recent increase in federal funding for evidence-based comprehensive sex education is any indication, it appears that the US might be (slowly, but remarkably), heading in the right direction.

Taryn Gal is the Outreach Coordinator at the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health. She has worked in the field of sexual health promotion for over ten years, including development and implementation of comprehensive evidence-based sexual education programs.  She has her Master’s degree from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.