Society’s changing attitudes toward sex has allowed for more open discussions on topics related to sexuality and reproductive health. The sexual revolution, for instance, has helped normalize formerly controversial issues such as premarital sex and birth control. It also called attention to the most common sexually transmitted diseases as well as more contentious issues like the ethics of abortion. It would be wrong to say, however, that the need to discuss these topics is over. There are still many issues to discuss, one of which is the manner by which the youth should be educated on matters of sex. The controversy surrounding sex education has not yet been settled considering how opinion and policy wildly differ among persons, communities, and cultures. On one side of the debate are those who advocate for comprehensive sex education. On the other side are those who oppose it and want it limited to abstinence. But evidence shows that current policies limiting the scope of sex education have not been as effective as those that allow for broad coverage. A reexamination of sex education in American schools is therefore in order as all signposts point to the implementation of comprehensive sex education.
The American government system gives states the power to shape their own policies that set the coverage of sex education. This has naturally resulted in differences in scope among the states. According to the Guttmacher Institute (2020), 39 out of 50 states mandate sex education or HIV education, 28 of which require both as opposed to 2 that require only sex education and 9 that require only HIV education. Even then, these states that mandate sex and HIV education have varying degrees of coverage. Some states have more comprehensive programs that integrate sexual orientation, healthy relationships, consent, dating, and violence prevention. On the other hand, some states focus only on abstinence, sex within marriage, and negative outcomes of teen sex. For instance, the states of Arkansas and Oklahoma mandate only HIV education, yet even then the course content is not required to be medically accurate. Arkansas and Louisiana also emphasize abstinence. Meanwhile, the state of Mississippi mandates only sex education and like Arkansas focuses only on abstinence, the importance of sex within marriage, and negative consequences of teen sex. Such policies have come to be known as abstinence-only sex education. Some states like Louisiana do not even mandate sex and HIV education. Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma’s policies stand in stark contrast with states such as New Hampshire and Vermont where sex and HIV education are mandated and often cover a wide range of topics (Guttmacher Institute, 2020). These differences in scope of sex education in turn have different outcomes. On the surface, it might seem that abstinence-only sex education will be more effective, considering that abstinence is the most effective way of preventing teenage pregnancy and transmission of sexually transmitted infections. The results, though, paint an entirely different picture.
Evidence consistently shows that comprehensive sex education is far more effective at preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection than sex education that is very limited in scope. For one, rates of teen pregnancy are actually higher in states that do not mandate comprehensive sex education. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020), Arkansas has the highest rate of teen pregnancy at 30.4 per 1,000 teenagers. This is followed by Mississippi and Louisiana with 27.8 and 27.5, respectively. On the other hand, states with the lowest rate of teen pregnancy tend to be those that mandate sex and HIV education; 7 of the 10 states with lowest rates of teen pregnancy require comprehensive content (Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington). These figures strongly suggest that there is a correlation between the scope of sex education and its effectiveness in preventing teenage pregnancy. It seems that the broader the scope, the more effective the program becomes. This correlation has been validated by researchers. In their analysis of data on teenage pregnancy and state policies, Stanger-Hall and Hall (2011) noted that states that offer limited information to young people experience higher rates than their counterparts that offer more information. This study only goes to show how abstinence-only sex education fails to solve this reproductive health issue.
Given that abstinence is the most effective way to address STIs and teen pregnancy, it comes across as ironic that policies limited to this strategy are less effective. It thus begs the question of what makes comprehensive sex education better. The answer may lie on the effect comprehensive policies have on the decision making of teenagers and their ability to handle situations. To start with, the information teenagers receive from comprehensive programs allows them to make wiser decisions when it comes to sex and reproductive health. It is important to note that teenagers are often under a lot of pressure to engage in sex. According to survey by the CDC, 40% of high school students have had sex at least once, and around half of this number has had sex with four or more partners (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2020). This survey only shows that there will still be young people who engage in sex regardless of what is told to them about abstinence. On the other hand, research shows that acquiring comprehensive education about sex can prompt change in behavior. In one international study conducted among Caribbean, African, and European countries, researchers found that teenagers are more likely to delay sex if they are given accurate information (Barnett, 1997). This effect on their decision making may be based on how comprehensive sex education informs them of the facts. The same study revealed that young people often have misconceptions about sex. For instance, some teenagers believe that pregnancy cannot occur during first intercourse. This myth in turn puts teenagers at risk for pregnancy and STIs, since they will not be as concerned about these issues if they engage in intercourse. But because sex education informs them of the facts, learning encourages more risk-averse behavior and wiser decision-making process.
Sex education also helps teenagers handle situations in a better way. The problem with programs with limited scopes is that these do not really encourage teenagers to handle situations in a safe fact-based manner. Abstinence-only sex education only tells the youth to avoid sex for as long as they are single and engage in intercourse only after they marry. While this kind of program may persuade some teenagers into delaying intercourse, there will still be some who will inevitably enter sexual relationships. The finding that 40% of high school students have already had sex is proof of that. But the lack of education on salient topics puts them at risk. As Stanger-Hall and Hall state in their study, “[abstinence-only] programs may actually be promoting irresponsible, high-risk teenage behavior by keeping teens uneducated with regard to reproductive knowledge and sound decision-making instead of giving them the tools to make educated decisions regarding their reproductive health” (2011, p. 9). This is where education plays a crucial role. Teenagers who have received comprehensive sex education have the knowledge necessary to protect themselves from STIs and teenage pregnancy in the event that they have sexual intercourse. Evidence to the connection between awareness and protection from STIs and teenage pregnancy can be found in practice among various countries that use sex education to their advantage. For example, Sweden’s sex education program is considered one of the most comprehensive in the world. Swedes are taught about sexuality and reproductive health as early as three to six years old. The country’s statistical data on teenage pregnancy shows a low rate of 5.2 per 1,000 (Weale, 2015). Sweden and other countries with effective sex education programs have gotten over the stigma of sex as a legitimate topic of discussion. The results of their practices point to what the United States can achieve once it reexamines its policies and recalibrates its approach.
The amount of evidence pointing to the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education makes clear the need to change policies in states where programs are limited in scope. As shown by the discussion, incomprehensive programs do a poor job at protecting teenagers from teenage pregnancy and STIs. Policymakers should begin considering the sexual and reproductive health of teenagers as primarily a practical and science-based issue. To consider teenagers as too young to grasp the facts of sexuality and reproductive health is a disservice to the youth. Programs that offer limited information deny teenagers the learning that they can use to protect themselves. This is the same principle behind educating young people on the health effects of smoking and drug abuse. Indeed, a single well-designed PowerPoint presentation can make a lot of difference; imagine a coordinated effort to educate students. It also simply stigmatizes sex, which does not help at preparing teenagers into becoming adults responsible for their own health. The logic, science, and real-life results are clear: in the case of sex education, knowledge is power that could save lives.
Barnett, B. (1997). Education protects health, delays sex. Network (Research Triangle Park, N.C.), 17(3), 14-5, 18-20.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). “Teen birth rate by state.” https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/sosmap/teen-births/teenbirths.htm
Guttmacher Institute. (2020). “Sex and HIV education.” https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education#
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2020). “State policies on sex education in schools.” https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-policies-on-sex-education-in-schools.aspx
Stanger-Hall, K. F. and Hall, D. W. (2011). Abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates: Why we need comprehensive sex education in the U.S. PLoS One, 6(10), 1-11. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0024658
Weale, S. (2015). “Swedish sex education has time for games and mature debate.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jun/05/swedish-sex-education-games-mature-debate