Comprehensive Sex Education: the BEST approach

“A mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity (Collins, Alagiri, Summers, 1).”

But while parents, adults, teachers, and society attempt to promote this belief to the country’s youth, the reality of youth sexuality does not align with this statement. According to a 2005 study, by age 18, 70% of U.S. females and 62% of U.S. males have initiated vaginal sex (Advocates for Youth: Effective Sex Education, 1). Not only are teens more sexually active than many adults would like, but the teen pregnancy rate is the highest in the developed world, with about a third (34%) of young women becoming pregnant at least once before they reach the age of 20 (Kaiser Family Foundation). In comparison to other countries, the pregnancy rate in the U.S. is at least twice that in England, France, Canada, and Sweden, and 10 times that in the Netherlands (Planned Parenthood, 4).

Unfortunately, pregnancy is not the only concern for teenagers. Currently, there are more than 20 prevalent sexually transmitted infections (STIs), infecting an average of more than 15 million individuals every year. Three million teens contract an STI each year, and two-thirds of all STIs occur in people who are 25 years of age or younger (Rector, 2). So how do we reduce these numbers?

With the various statistics showing the current trends of our youth, comprehensive sex education is the best approach to reduce STIs, unintended pregnancy, and the need for abortion. Through various studies, the comprehensive method has been proven to have long-term impacts including lower STI and/or pregnancy rates (Advocates for Youth: Effective Sex Education, 1).

Through different surveys, it has been overwhelmingly clear that adults and parents approve of comprehensive sex education for teenagers. In a 2004 study, 94 percent of adults and 93 percent of parents said that sex education should cover contraception (Advocates for Youth: Effective Sex Education, 2). Another survey discovered that 84 percent of adults agreed with the statement that whether or not young people are sexually active, they should be given information to protect themselves from unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (Collins, Alagiri, Summers, 3). And it is not only adults that support comprehensive sex education; students have desired more information. According to a national survey of teenagers, 51 percent say they need more information about how to get tested for HIV/AIDS and 30 percent want more information on how to use condoms (Collins, Alagiri, Summers, 3). If one of the primary goals of sex education is to reduce the number of HIV infections and STIs, shouldn’t the curriculum meet the needs of our youth?

Even with adults, parents, and students desiring comprehensive sex education, they may not be knowledgeable about the best approach to teach youth about sex. But they do not stand alone in rejecting abstinence-only sex education; every reputable sexuality education organization and well-known health organization including the American Medical Association, have denounced abstinence-only sexuality education (Planned Parenthood, 4). But, you may be asking “why have they denounced this approach?”

Abstinence-only sex education has not been proven effective to lower sex initiation or increase contraception use. While Rector claims that abstinence-only programs have reduced early sexual activity, several other studies have proven otherwise. In a ten state study where abstinence-only sex education was implemented, none of the states demonstrated evidence of long-term success in delaying sexual initiation, and even resulted in some negative impacts on teen’s willingness to use contraception to prevent sexual health effects related to sexual intercourse (Advocates for Youth: Five Years… 4). Although there are promoters of this method, the programs’ emphasis on contraception failure rates has left teens hesitant to use them. By denying teenagers a broad spectrum of information regarding human sexuality, abstinence-only education fails to provide teens with the necessary information needed to protect their health and well-being (Collins, Alagiri, Summers, 14).

In contrast to abstinence-only sex education’s ineffectiveness to lower STI and/or teen pregnancy rates, comprehensive sex education has been proven to have a positive result in reducing these statistics. Several specific studies have demonstrated positive outcomes from comprehensive sex education by displaying delayed initiation of sexual activity, increased condom use, and decreased number of sexual partners (Collins, Alagiri, Summers, 9). While abstinence-only promoters fear an increase of sexual activity from other approaches, the Surgeon General has explained that, “evidence gives strong support…that providing information about contraception does not increase adolescent sexual activity (Collins, Alagiri, Summers, 14). Over the past decade, California, the only state that has not accepted federal abstinence-only money, has experienced more than a 40% drop in the teenage pregnancy rate, which is something the government should further examine (Planned Parenthood, 4).

Despite few, if any, positive results with abstinence-only sex education, the government has continued to fund it. From 1998 to 2003, states implemented abstinence-only-until-marriage programs using almost half a billion dollars in state and federal funds to support the Title V initiative, but unfortunately failed to yield positive results from representative samples of 9th through 12th graders throughout the country (Advocates for Youth: Trends…1). Through the analysis of these samples, it was determined that sexual activity among high school students declined significantly from 1991 to 1997, prior to large-scale funding of abstinence-only programs, but changed little from 1999-2003, with federal funding of these programs (Advocates for Youth, 1).

Results of the studies showed the percentage of students that had had sexual intercourse decreased significantly by 11 percent from 1991 to 1997, but there was no statistically significant decline from 1999 to 2003 (Advocates for Youth, 2). Similarly, the prevalence of multiple sex partners decreased by 14 percent from 1991 to 1997 but there was no statistically significant decline of the frequency of multiple sex partners from 1999 to 2003 (Advocates for Youth, 2). These programs improved teens’ attitudes toward abstinence, but were least likely to positively affect students’ sexual behavior. However, even with no evidence of effectiveness behind abstinence-only sex education…funding increased by nearly 3000% from 1996 to 2001 (Collins, Alagiri, Summers, 4).

With the lack of effectiveness that abstinence-only sex provides and the rates of teen sexual behavior, we must ask ourselves, is abstinence-only really the best method to meet the needs of our youth?

Advocates for Youth, “Trends in Sexual Risk Behaviors Among High School Students”

Advocates for Youth, “Effective Sex Education”

Advocates for Youth, “Five Years of Abstinence-Only-Until-Education: Assessing the Impact”

Chris Collins, Priya Alagiri, Todd Summers, “Abstinence Only vs Comprehensive Sex Education”

Planned Parenthood, “Abstinence-Only Sex Education”

Robert Rector, “The Effectiveness of Abstinence Education Programs in Reducing Sexual Activity Among Youth”

U.S. Teen Sexual Activity.”Jan. 2005. Kaiser Family Foundation: Your Resource for Health Policy Information, Research and Analysis. Web.

7 Responses to “Comprehensive Sex Education: the BEST approach”

  1. JaNaye Schroeder says:

    The Abstinence Only vs. comprehensive Sex Education article states that parents approve of a comprehensive sex education program, however in the Rector article, he points out that few parents would be so eager to agree with this education program if they knew what their children would be learning (Rector, 4). The fact that parents are not always aware of what their children will be learning brings into question whether or not school is the best place for children to receive their sex education. Karen states in her debate that what children are taught varies from district to district. For parents to be more in control of the education that their children are receiving, maybe sex education needs to be taken out of the classroom curriculum.

    Another point is the age appropriateness of sex education. At what age will this comprehensive sex education program be implemented? The article by Rector sites SEICUS that teaches young children, 5-8 about masturbation, 9-12 year olds about “mutual masturbation, ‘outercourse’ and oral sex” (Rector, 4). This doesn’t seem like an education that I would want my child to be receiving while in elementary or middle school; few kids this age know what these activities are so why should we initiate them thinking about this before they are ready? Rector also states that “…these programs also implicitly encourage sexual activity among the youths they teach” (Rector, 4). Teaching children about masturbation, oral sex, and other sexual activities before they are mature enough to learn about these activities, will give the wrong impression.

  2. Keisha Bates says:

    Colleen brings an impressive amount of statistics expressing the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education, but similar to what I said in my last comment, what many people fail to do (I include myself in this statement) is actually look at both sides of the issue. How many of us actively look for data that contradicts our opinions or beliefs? My point in saying this is that there are some benefits associated with abstinence-only sex education that many people overlook.

    Colleen stated that “abstinence-only education fails to provide teens with the necessary information needed to protect their health and well-being”. However, the federal definition of abstinence-only sex education includes things such as teaching the “importance of attaining self-sufficiently before engaging in sexual activity” and teaching teenagers how to “reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances” (Dailard 2002). I do not know about you, but I know that I would definitely support my children learning these types of lessons.

    Additionally, comprehensive sex education may not be what most parents think it is. According to a report by the United State Department of Health and Human Services in 2007, comprehensive sex education that was highly recommended to schools around the nation was found to “devote little time to teaching the merits of abstaining from sex but spend an overwhelming amount of teaching time topics such as condom demonstration and sexual game play as methods of ‘safe’ sex” (ParentsForTruth 2008).

    This same study showed that the recommended comprehensive sex education curricula (which was suggested for students as young as 13) taught them how to role play in order to help a partner maintain an erection, described how to “eroticize condom use”, and suggested that teens disguise their appearance when shopping for condoms (ParentsForTruth 2008).

    Is comprehensive sex education really all it is cracked up to be?

    ParentsForTruth. 2008. Why support abstinence education? National Abstinence Education Association.

    Dailard, C. 2002. Abstinence promotion and teen family planning: the misguided drive for equal funding. The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy. Volume 5, Number 1.

  3. Alison Mastain says:

    Colleen stated in her debate, “in a ten state study where abstinence-only sex education was implemented, none of the states demonstrated evidence of long-term success in delaying sexual initiation, and even resulted in some negative impacts on teen’s willingness to use contraception to prevent sexual health effects related to sexual intercourse (Advocates for Youth: Five Years… 4).” This is exactly what scares me about abstinence-only education. As has been pointed out in both debates, both directly and indirectly, the U.S. is obsessed with sex. At least some teens are going to have sex no matter what you tell them, it’s basic instinct and desire. How does not informing our youth on methods of contraception help with the “epidemic” of teen sex? All this creates is an environment in which teens are unaware of how to have safe sex and will become more likely to engage in dangerous sexual experiences.

    One question I have about Colleen’s comprehensive approach to sex education is whether or not it would include an abstinence element. I do not see an issue with abstinence education; it is important for teens to understand both the health benefits of abstinence, mainly, that it is 100% effective against pregnancy and all HIV and STIs, and the ethical benefits of it. Would this program be an “Abstinence-plus” program, as described on page four of the article, “Abstinence Only vs. Comprehensive Sex Education,” or would it be something else entirely? Would abstinence be covered in the curriculum? If not, why?

  4. Kaitlyn O'Bryan says:

    I think Colleen has a good start on her argument, but I also think she has (thus far) the easiest position to defend. Thus, I will ask a few other questions about different aspects of sex ed.

    – Does sex ed belong in schools? Why do we even pay for kids to learn a specific curriculum that they (or thier parents) do not subscribe to. Why not require each parent to choose an independent sex ed program for children to take – much like drivers ed. Drivers ed can be taken through the school, but it is also taken outside of school at private institutions. We already are lacking in continuity in curriculum between school to school much less district to district.

    – What is your stance on allowing parents to opt their kids out of sex. ed. I know some schools who do have this option for parents who believe that they would rather teach their children at home about sex and sexuality. JaNaye herself says that she does not want her kids learning some of the things that Rector said were taught in schools in his article. Why do we let parents do this for sex ed but not for math. Yes sex is more of a moral and ethical issue, but we do not take kids out during other issues which can be religiously or emotionally charged such as evolution. What is your stance on this?

    – Do we really cover sexual health through comprehensive sex ed? To me we discuss how not to get pregnant or an STD, but that is just part of the larger picture. The comprehensive sex ed curriculum does not appear to cover any of the joys or pleasures of sex and seems to approach sex with a fear and trembling approach – not necessarily what I think we would say makes for a sexually healthy individual. Furthermore, what about for gay and lesbian students who do not need to worry about pregnancy. For them, this area of the curriculum is just another painful reminder that they do not fit in at their school.

  5. Jericho Westendorf says:

    Colleen makes a good argument against abstinence-only education, but fails to completely back up why comprehensive sex education is the best alternative. What exactly does a comprehensive approach mean? What would this education involve? I would like to see Colleen explain what her approach would include and what it would leave out and the reasons. (i.e. condom use, dental dams, pregnancy, STIs, gay/lesbian sex, abstinence, masturbation, birth control, plan b, abortion, different sex positions, sex toys). How far is Colleen willing to stretch the sex education and where does she draw the line?

    I would like to know more in-depth what makes a comprehensive sex education the best and why the school system should be responsible for it. Clearly abstinence-only education has its faults, but then why not just leave it to the parents? Is there a reason that sex education should be left to the schools other than previously-established tradition?

  6. Megan Myhre says:

    It is extremely difficult for me to come up with a counter-argument for this debate. I did an in-depth paper on comprehensive sex education in my Christian Social Ethics course last semester. I, however, have read multiple articles for, as well as, against comprehensive sex education. I do agree with Colleen that comprehensive sex education is the most effective in lowering the rate of teen pregnancy and STIs. It also provides students with the truth and doesn’t hide anything from them. It doesn’t only promote healthy sexual choices, but the whole idea behind comprehensive sex education is that it also promotes abstinence to some extent.

    Colleen presents these facts in her debate- “In a 2004 study, 94 percent of adults and 93 percent of parents said that sex education should cover contraception (Advocates for Youth: Effective Sex Education, 2). I would like to know what Colleen is going to tell the other 7% of parents who disagree? What are the kids of those parents going to do in school when it comes to sex education? It would be difficult for families to find programs in their area that fit their values. Plus that creates the controversy that Karen was talking about in her debate, about the conflicting ideas among students about sex education. It needs to be a uniform thing for students to all get the same information from the same source.

    One last thing that I would like to address is Colleen’s argument that students want more information. If students are desiring more education, perhaps it is not only because they want to know more, but also because they want to know more so that they can properly engage in it whether they are mentally prepared or not.

  7. Martin Barnard says:

    While I agree that comprehensive sexual education is the best method for teen sexual education, I would like to point out one of the best points made for abstinence based sexual education. Abstinence is the only way to prevent 100% of pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. I would also like to consider the reasons why parents would want comprehensive sexual education. Perhaps this is only because parents do not want to teach this information in the home. However, this may not necessarily discount the need for comprehensive sexual education. If abstinence only sexual education is the norm and parents do not want to educate their children about safe sex when appropriate then comprehensive sexual education in school makes perfect sense. There is a problem in America because “Annually, 3 million teenagers contract STDs; STDs afflict roughly one in four teens who are sexually active” (Rector 1). This is a further testament to the need for a better sexual education program. Currently only abstinence sexual education receives federal funding and the STD transmission rate not declining. This demonstrates a need to rethink the sexual education program in America. Comprehensive sexual education, however, has its drawbacks. Local school districts, PTAs, and teachers will define the curriculum of the program. Each of these units has an agenda to convey to students. The curriculum of a comprehensive sex education program will need to be carefully defined to be truly “comprehensive.”