Researcher: “How can anyone know a newborn baby is a boy or a girl?”
Eleven-Year-Old Boy: “If it’s got a penis or not. If it has it’s a boy. Girls have a Virginia.”
Sex Education Overview
Ideas about what constitutes an effective and appropriate sex education vary between countries, nations, cultures, and even amongst families. Where it is used, a sex education curriculum typically reflects the dominant cultural values and norms of the greater community, and even today there is yet to be a nation in which comprehensive standards have been achieved. In past decades, “abstinence-only” sex education programs dominated much of the United States due to funding incentives given by conservative political groups; remnants of their influence can still be seen in American legislation today.1
One thing we can absolutely confirm (due to exhaustive scientific and sociological research during and after the 2004 Bush administration) is that abstinence-only programs have little or no effect on teenage sexual behavior in terms of deterring sexual activity. A majority of these conservative programs, including the “Just Say No” campaign and various other virginity-pledge-based campaigns, stress that abstinence is the only safe and moral strategy to avoid teen pregnancy and acquiring STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections). On the other hand, comprehensive programs (which include information on topics like condoms/contraceptives, STIs, anatomy, sexual functioning, communication skills, etc.) actually cause teens to delay sexual activity and be more likely to use methods of birth control when and if they do become sexually active.1
A Recent (and Brief) History
Between 1998 and 2003, the United States government spent at least $899 million to support abstinence-only sexual education programs (after research proved their inefficacy at preventing teen sexual activity and/or pregnancy) on the premise that “values trump data”. After the results were released of at least 50 evaluations, professionals concluded that financial support for these programs was a gross misuse of federal, state, and local funds. In 2008, when the composition of congress changed (and the majority perspective was less conservative), funds for abstinence-only programs were terminated by the Obama administration, and $114 million was allocated for effective, evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs by the following year.2
Although the media may periodically suggest strong resistance to comprehensive sexuality education, surveys show that there is actually overwhelming support for adolescent sex education in the United States when students are at least twelve years old or older. A nationally representative sample in 2003 indicated that 93% of parents of seventh- and eighth-grade students said it was “important” or “very important” that sexuality education be part of school curriculum. In the same year, a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 88% of parents of middle schoolers agreed that having a sex education program in school made it easier for them to speak with their children about sex at home.2 Typically, reasons why some parents may find it difficult to discuss sexuality with their children include the following:
1) They are embarrassed or have few model examples of how to discuss sexuality explicitly and effectively
2) They simply do not know enough accurate information because their own sex education was lacking.2
Comprehensive sexuality education in schools can effectively facilitate parent-child conversations about sex and allow both parents and students to feel more comfortable exchanging information and expressing their questions and concerns. It must be noted that sex education in school should not be considered an “alternative” to talking with your child about sex, but instead an academic supplement to the information you provide.
Public versus Private Issue
There is often debate surrounding whether educating children on sexuality is the responsibility of parents and guardians or the public school system. This is because in contemporary American society, sexuality is still primarily considered to be a “private” topic, and many believe that speaking with children about sexuality promotes engagement in sexual activity and promiscuity (although research suggests otherwise). Some parents prefer to teach their children about sexuality from an angle that accentuates their personal beliefs and values, while others prefer to avoid the conversation entirely. Either way, the invaluableness of correct and accurate information is unquestionable when it comes to the education of children in all aspects of human health. Because education on human sexuality is not guaranteed in the home, it should be considered a responsibility the public has to its students for the purposes of public health and well-being.2
Where We Are Now
As of March 2013, only 22 states (and the District of Columbia) actually require public schools to teach sex education in the United States. This statistic is alarming not only because results from a 2011 CDC (Center for Disease Control) survey indicated that over 47% of all American high school students claimed to have had sex, but also because the United States has, by far, the highest teen birth rate among all the industrialized nations in the world today. Furthermore, rates of STIs among persons aged 15-24 and cases of HIV infection in adolescents are steadily rising. Studies continue to demonstrate (since the 1980s Goldman studies) that American students are far behind other nations in obtaining sexual information at the most elementary levels; this has a clear affect on where the U.S. stands in relation to teen sexual health.3
National data shows that although the teen birth rate in United States is at an all-time low since data collection began over 50 years ago, three in 10 females will still become pregnant before they turn 20. Data also shows that teenage mothers are less likely to finish high school and are more likely than their peers to live in poverty, be in poor health, and depend on public assistance. In addition to the possible negative consequences teen parenthood may have on our nation’s young people, there are also a slew of potential setbacks for the children of teen parents. These risks include a higher risk of living in poverty, dropping out of high school, and continuing the cycle of teen parenthood by becoming teen parents themselves.3
If these significant risks associated with teen parenting are not enough to highlight the importance of comprehensive sex education standards, a finding by the National Conference of State Legislatures stresses the overall financial loses to our nation: teen childbearing in the U.S. costs taxpayers at least $10.9 billion annually for the public assistance needs of these mothers. Additionally, treating young people with sexually transmitted infections costs taxpayers approximately $6.5 billion annually (not including the costs associated with treating HIV/AIDS). Thus, our nation spends almost $17.5 billion annually on treating the consequences of withholding information from our young people that could possibly prepare them for healthy and fulfilling adult lives and protect them from disease and inevitable confusion.3
The Opposition is a Minority
It is true that some American citizens (typically religious conservatives) remain against educating children about sex in the public school system. They may feel that, amongst other reasons, abstinence until marriage is morally imperative (although only 5% of Americans actually remain sexually abstinent until marriage), and it is ultimately a parent’s responsibility to educate their child about sex if they choose to do so. Parents and other adults may also believe that no matter the content, sex education programs will legitimize and promote sexual activity among teens and facilitate the associated negative consequences, despite the plethora of studies disproving this hypothesis.2 Although the stories often covered in the media typically portray favoritism of abstinence-only sex-education programs by certain religious affiliations, parents and educators must remember three things about such perspectives:
1) They are actually quite rare
2) Protestors are typically a very small percentage compared to those who openly support sex education (Remember, 93% of parents to a middle school student agree that it is "important" or "very important" for sex education to be included in school cirriculum.)
3) Controversy usually exists over a particular aspect of any said program (such as the use of a particular video or book versus sex education as a whole)
Furthermore, those who are against comprehensive sex education appear to be overlooking the realistic alternative to an accurate, information-based education: skewed information from the media. A study done in 2001 indicated that teens ages 13-15 years receive over half of their information about sex from friends, television, movies, and other entertainment sources. Information on sexuality from these types of sources are often sensationalized and unrealistic. Many sex educators regard the exchange of such information between adolescents as “the blind leading the blind” because youth often have unknowingly inaccurate or sensationalized information which they pass on to one another. Furthermore, sexual misinformation that circulated in 2001 was likely in no comparison to the amount of uncredible sources teens now have access to in an era heavily influenced by technology and entertainment media.2
Where to Go from Here
Here at SexInfo, we believe that people of all ages have the right to know about their bodies and how to protect them. It is unfortunate that such an important aspect of human existence is often spoken of as “dirty” or “inappropriate” and that there has been an enormous taboo placed on the discussion of sex-related topics with children. It is not guaranteed that, aside from euphemisms, innuendos, and dirty jokes, a child will ever acquire effective language to discuss sex-related topics or obtain the accurate information they are seeking (or are simply curious about) until early adulthood. Giving children a formal, age-appropriate education beginning in primary school will equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to make informed and responsible choices as they mature.
Additionally, it is important that parents and educators use any opportunities they may encounter to facilitate continuous conversations with young people about sex as opposed to one “big talk”. Frequency of discussion will foster comfortability with children and students, allowing them to freely express their questions and concerns openly and honestly. Furthermore, teaching a positive view of human sexuality is important for young people to eventually experience happy and healthy intimate relationships. First, giving them the language to discuss issues they may face is essential for personal safety and success and later communication with sexual and intimate partners.
Because comprehensive sex education prepares students for both the positive and potentially negative consequences of becoming sexually active, most sex educators recommend that any sex education cirriculum be medically accurate and age appropriate. The following are guidelines as recommended by the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States (SEICUS) for comprehensive sexuality education (links embedded). SIECUS recommends each of these six key concepts to be taught at all age levels with increasing depth across grade levels:
Until comprehensive standards for sex education are reached across the world, there are a few things we believe are essential for students to learn either from their parents or teachers at minimum. For children who have not yet experienced puberty (approximately up to age 10), it is important to teach them the basics of their anatomy, how their bodies work, how babies are conceived, and what they should expect of their bodies in the near future (during puberty). If children will not be receiving another course in sex education in their early teen years, primary school is the time to introduce them to other aspects of sexuality, such as love and relationships, contraception, sexual violence information (such as sexual assault and domestic abuse), and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). If children will be receiving additional sex education in their early teen years, then some of these advanced subjects (like contraception and STIs) can be left for a later time because children are more likely to face these issues after puberty. If such advanced topics are never presented in a child’s formal education, parents must introduce these topics at a time they deem appropriate.
When teaching sex education, a teacher should always give accurate information, clarify misunderstandings, relate material to students’ lives, and be approachable. If a teacher is embarrassed to talk about certain issues, children may perceive the subject as being taboo. Therefore, a teacher should make sure that he or she feels comfortable talking with children about all aspects of sex education and be prepared to answer any questions his or her students may have. Sometimes children may feel uncomfortable about asking questions during class, so many teachers have their students write an anonymous question on a piece of paper, fold them up, and pass them in so the teacher can draw from the papers at random. This gives children a chance to ask important questions, and it also lets the teacher know what the children are curious about. Also, it is important to consider using visual aids, when appropriate, so the children can see pictures of the topics being discussed.
A good teacher is also a good listener who is able to gauge what students know and want to learn by the questions they ask. In order to be successful, an educator must also keep in mind the cultural differences their students may have and how their families’ values might shape their beliefs. A teacher may want to discuss with parents and other adults about what they think should be taught in class and should also keep in mind what local laws are in place regarding sex education. Ultimately, any sexuality education given to students must be accurate and leave children with an awareness of their bodies and how to protect themselves.
1. LeVay, Simon, Janice Baldwin, and John Baldwin. Discovering Human Sexualiy. Sinauer Associates, Inc., 2009.
2. Hyde, Janet and John D. Delamater. Understanding Human Sexuality, 11th Ed. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2011.
Last Updated 6 February 2014.