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The birds and the bees: What's the status of sex ed?

As the debate rages over the kind of sex education schools should provide, parents have a key role to play.

By GreatSchools Staff

The debate over sex education is raging anew. A national study made alarming headlines: one in four sexually active teens and young people was found to have a sexually transmitted disease (STD). The news prompted calls for better sex education. The unsettled question: What kind of sex education is good sex education?

The duel between proponents of comprehensive sex education and abstinence-only programs continues as organizations such as the Guttmacher Institute publish updated research on the status of teens’ sexual health across the country. A look at the status of sex education, the latest research, and the key role parents play in a child's sexual behavior can help make more sense of the issues.

From the moment "sex ed" was introduced in the early 1900s, it has been controversial. Initially unveiled in the schools as an effort to curb venereal disease, the focus eventually shifted to preventing teenage pregnancy. The arrival of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s upped the ante and brought a new sense of urgency to keep kids safe.

 Sex Education Laws

Though there is no federal sex education law, the fine print of a health legislation law passed in March 2010 restores $250 million over five years for states to sponsor abstinence-education. While most states have laws about sex education, those that agreed to teach abstinence can receive annual amounts of $78,526 to $4.9 million over the next five years. While the majority of states allow parents to pull their children out of sex education class, each state has different requirements for sex and HIV education. You can look up the status of your state at the Guttmacher Institute’s website, which updates monthly.

Abstinence vs. comprehensive sex education

The explosive growth of programs that advocate abstinence for unmarried people has been supported by the past three administrations. Initially fueled by government funding from the Clinton administration’s welfare reform legislation, the Bush administration gave more than $100 million a year in direct federal funding and about $50 million a year in federal money that had been funneled through the states. The Obama administration has continued the trend with the aforementioned health bill, which will spend federal money on programs aimed at preventing pregnancy and STDs by encouraging students to avoid sex.

What is taught in comprehensive vs. abstinence programs

A comprehensive program typically:

• Teaches that sex is natural and healthy and how to make responsible decisions about sexuality
• Teaches that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective form of birth control
• Explains medical details of STDs and HIV
• Provides information about the health benefits and side effects of all contraceptive methods as a means to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of contracting STDs or HIV/AIDS
• Covers a variety of topics, such as relationships, communication skills, health, and societal expectations
• Includes factual information on abortion, sexual orientation, and sexually transmitted diseases without promoting religion

An abstinence-only program typically:

• Teaches that abstaining from sexual activity has social, physiological, and health gains
• Teaches that sex outside of marriage has harmful psychological and physical consequences and that abstinence is the expected standard of sexual activity
• May or may not discuss condoms or other birth control. If it does, it is usually with an emphasis on failure rates; however, in order to be funded federally, the program must provide medically accurate and balanced information.
• Omits topics such as abortion and sexual orientation
• Teaches communication skills so that teens can keep from being pressured into sex
• Explains the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity

Middle-ground programs

Hybrid sex education programs have evolved in an effort to find a compromise between the two camps. These include Abstinence-Plus Education, which emphasizes the abstinence component in a comprehensive sex education program. A recent study found that up to two-thirds of comprehensive programs for sexually active teens had positive behavioral effects, such as delaying or reducing sexual activity, reducing the number of sexual partners, or increasing contraceptive use.

Simulate what it’s like to have a baby

Both comprehensive programs and those that emphasize abstinence may incorporate a more pragmatic approach to try to convince kids to delay sex. Students are required to carry eggs in a basket or a sack of flour around for a certain period of time to try to understand how having a baby would affect their lives. Recently, more and more companies are producing simulated robotic infants that need to be quieted, comforted, changed, burped, and fed. Realityworks, an experiential learning technology company, has produced a RealCare baby that is a computerized simulator with an unpredictable nature. When it cries at random times day or night, the student parent has to figure out what the baby needs: feeding, burping, rocking, or a rediapering. If the baby gets rough treatment or a parent misses a cry, a microprocessor recordsthe exact time and specific mishandling.

RealCare Baby is costly (more than $750 for each baby) but has been used as a Sex Ed tactic at many schools. Is it a gimmick or does it work?

RealCare Baby is based on a learning theory about adolescents: Kids of this age believe they are unlikely to get pregnant and underestimate the difficulties if they do. There's some evidence that computerized infant simulators have been shown to have a significant positive effect compared to curriculum alone or baby stand-ins such as eggs or sacks of flour. However, there's a lot less evidence that the teens made the jump from taking care of a baby to postponing sexual activity. (Editor’s note: "Baby Think It Over" has become part of RealityWorks.)

Using RealCare Baby in the context of other lessons may be the most powerful way to bring home the responsibility of rearing a child. Incorporating lessons in math about the cost of caring for a child, for example, might reinforce a lesson learned from carrying a simulated baby around for a few days.

Which sex ed approach is best?

A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics reported in January, 2009 that they had found no difference in the sexual behavior of virginity pledgers and closely matched nonpledgers. In fact, while having the same occurrence of premarital sex and STDs, pledgers were less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease before marriage. The ultimate conclusion was that taking virginity pledges — such as those from abstinence-only programs — may decrease the likelihood of taking precautions during sex. Since this was not a strong correlation to abstinence-only programs directly, more rigorous research is needed on the effectiveness of these programs.

The first national survey comparing the effects of the two types of sex education found in 2008 that students who got comprehensive sex education are half as likely to become teen parents as those who got abstinence-only instruction or no sex education. In the survey, taken by researchers at the University of Washington and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, teens between 15 and 19 years old who had comprehensive sex education were no more likely to have sex than those who had abstinence-only classes. Neither comprehensive nor abstinence-only instruction had much effect on the odds that student would be infected with an STD.

What should a concerned parent do?

Parents play a major role in influencing a child's sexual behavior. As the report sponsored by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy points out, teens' own sexual beliefs, values, attitudes ,and intentions — not the kind of sex education they get in school — are the most strongly related to their sexual behavior. And parents play a key role in shaping those attitudes. That makes the pregnancy of a high-profile teen actress a teachable moment. Talking about sex can be tough for parents, but there is a wealth of research pointing to its importance.

If you need help with your talking points, check the advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics or even our recent statistics on sexual health on talking to kids about sex — from preschool through the teen years. Here are other ways you can get involved in what your child learns about sex and when:

• Stay informed about sexual health issues by reading and talking to other parents and your family doctor. That way you can learn about the pressures on young people that didn't exist when you were a teen!
• Find out what your school teaches your child about sex and in what grade.
• Find out where your school board and school board candidates stand on the issue.
Keep up-to-date on state legislation that governs the way sex education is taught.
 


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/28/2012:
"Since the public schools have been mandated by the legislatures to be the primary source of sex ed, why do you tie the hands of teachers by not allowing morals to be part of the teaching? You mention not using "religion" but how about a moralistic approach that is not specific to any individual religion? The reasons for abstinence are very shallow without bringing in the moral issues. "
04/2/2009:
"As for sex education it should NOT and I repeat SHOULD NOT be taught in ELEMENTARY schools PERIOD! I find this absurd. "
04/2/2009:
"The only sensible and workable solution to handling teen sex is comprehensive sex ed in the schools AND parents talking with their kids. I am 53 and my parents never said one word about sex. Teaching me about normal bodily functions like menstruation and the consequences of unprotected sex was left to the classes at my school. IT DIDN'T WORK! I have never had an STD, but I did get pregnant at 16, thanks to my parents' closed minds. I had an abortion at their insistence, and no, I don't regret it. I know now how hard it would have been. I taught my daughters sex education myself, and took them for birth control when they felt it was needed and am proud to say that neither of them had an STD and neither had kids until they were at least 22. Teaching abstinence doesn't work; the sex drive in a normal healthy person is nearly overwhelming in the teenage years. Using their heads to contradict these feelings is the only way to deal with it. And I don't want to hear anyth! ing about how good a christian you are and God doesn't want sex outside of marriage. Thank the Goddess I'm not christian! She teaches that sex is a normal, joyful part of life, but only when you are ready, both mentally and physically. Education is paramount, because using your head before doing anything is the key."
04/2/2009:
"This is a highly charged emotional topic. I would recommend this site rewrite the abstinence only write up to remove the obvious bias against it. My suggested rewrite would be: • Teaches that sex is reserved for marriage and that if you are not in a committed relationship abstinence is the only acceptable behavior • May or may not discuss condoms or other birth control. • Omits topics such as abortion and sexual orientation • Teaches communication skills so that teens can keep from being pressured into sex • Helps teens explore their goals in life "
04/2/2009:
"At what age do schools teach sex-ed classes? Do they teach it more than once? If not, they should. Once in elementary ( a more simple aprroach). And then again around age 15, at that age really getting into STD's and pregnancy."
04/2/2009:
"I have enjoyed receiving your e-mails. However, I found this one to be particularly slanted. I am certainly open to a middle ground approach To Sex Ed. in schools. But It was not clear if this article was strictly informational (facts only) or simply a commentary on Sex Education from past to present. Based on how it was presented I would have to guess the latter. It was clear, from your verbiage, that an abstinence program is considered less than ideal. I also find that your representation of that approach is considerably inaccurate. I hope that in the future when various views are presented, you are able to contact and use reliable sources from ALL perspectives. Thank You, Michelle"
06/11/2008:
"Frankly I think adults need sex education too. I work as a nurse practitioner at a family planning clinic and still get a lot of men and women of all ages who never received accurate information on sexuality, contraception, STD's and relationships. My youngest patient I treated for gonorrhea was 13 and the oldest-- 72 for chlamydia. If I got a dollar every time I heard the phrase ' I must have gotten it from a toilet seat or a towel', I would be rich by now! As a society obsessed with what's on reality TV, we have done a great disservice to the next generation coming of age. More needs to be done on educating and advocating to the mass media(yes, this includes music, magazines, news shows etc..) and Hollywood of the stereotypes they depict of gender, race, age and sexuality. The education system and parents are trying to do what they can without upsetting the vocal 'pro-abstinence minority' on school boards and others. So far I haven't heard anyone mention the mass medi! a. THEY need more scrutinizing then ever before (they are a reflection of pop culture and society)--this does not mean censorship by no means! Abstinence only programs can be argued as a subtle form of censorship and propaganda---allowing only one side to be heard and taught. I am not for censorship. In other countries condom ads run during daytime and prime-time evening TV. Why can't this happen in the USA in the 21 century! We are quick to run ads on viagra though! If you want change to happen---you must advocate for the truth. mother in California"
06/2/2008:
"Very nice job. I had not heard about the U of Washington study saying comprehensive programs had better outcomes."
06/2/2008:
"i think sex ed is a very important subject that needs to be taught in scholl like safe sex with condoms and so on so i think schools nedd to push the subject because there are so many young girls 11-16 having kids and have sex sometimes unprotected so i think that they should know not oly the prgnancy risk but the diseases like pictures go to the extreme because i know that if my child god forbid starting having sex aat 13 the age sh is now i would be very dissappointed in her that is why we have an open relationship and i very much support all of the sex ed classes in america now giving young girl birth control in school is pushing it a little but if that what it takes to not hvae my child getting pregnant at a young age by all means give it to her - ms.campbell"
06/2/2008:
"Sex is a wonderful yet serious topic. I think parents should innitiate conversation on the topic with their children at an appropriate age. My girls have expressed that they are glad that they have had the 'sex talk' with their mom because many of their friends at school are confused and misled by the things they hear from their peers. They are confident in their knowledge on the subject and aren't left to wonder or question what they've heard from peers. Also, they wer'e probably much more comfortable in the classroom setting among their peers having already been informed. Do your best to make your kids feel comfortable to talk with you about anything. "
06/2/2008:
"I think absitnence-only sex education is doing our kids a disservice. Sure, in a perfect world, they should remain abstinent, but parents need to pull their hedas out of the sand and realize the pressure our kids are under to be sexual. Just look at the advertising, at the celebrity culture, at MTV! Kids think they HAVE to be sexual. It's up to us as parents to talk to them about it, to encourage them to wait, but we should also allow the schools to teach them the clinical facts along with methods to protect themselves from disease and unwanted pregnancies. You can tell them not to do it, but they will be the ones in control of what they decide to do or not do and we should make sure they are armed with the facts, as opposed to trying to keep them in a bubble ot ignorance. Face facts, parents. You can't protect them forever but you can help them be prepared to face reality. "
06/2/2008:
"The only education there should be taught is 'CELIBACY' till marrage. I personally find it affendsive and stupid that there has to be a depate. Bottom blunt line, no sex--no unwanted births, fewer fatherless children, no disease, less warefare, fewer food stamp handouts, fewer medicaid applicants. I personally am a single mom through divorce and I've been celibant now going on 13 years. And I have had opportunity and invitation of otherwise. Why, well I am a Christian. And our father in heaven said 'NO' This I teach my child. Deb"
06/2/2008:
"sex ed made a difference, for the better, for me. In junior high school I had a sex ed class, over 40 years ago. Having been taught the responsiblities and consequences of sexual relationships proved these well learned lessons. Having a 12 year old daughter has brought me the opportunity to share what I know and practice. She is well aware of the multitude of sexual issues of today and, as with I, the responsibilities and consequences of having sexual relationshops. She is aware and knowledgable far in excess of her peers."
06/2/2008:
"I believe that it is important to teach the children about sex education and not just focus on the Abstinence only. If you are going to discuss it discuss it all. The risk of disease, pregnancy, the stigma of multiple partners for boys and girls etc... I believe that it is wrong that sterotypically the boys get a pat on the back while the girls on the other hand get branded. I believe BOTH sexes should abstain until they are mentally mature enough to handle such a big step in their lives and that having multiple partners should be frowned upon by BOTH sexes and not just for the females. I would like it better if they waited till they are married, ideally, but let's be realistic! Also I believe starting this dialogue is a bit early in the sixth grade. I believe ninth grade in my opinion would be better. I agree that the parents have a major role in influencing their children greatly when it comes to a childs sexual behaviour and so this is a discussion that should begin at home and continued on. Instilling values and self empowerment and confidence so that a child doesnt feel that sexual encounters should need to take place in order to be liked and feel loved and accepted. As a parent I dont want to think of my child out there having sex (but lets be real!) but you hope you give them the tools and knowledge necessary to make good decisions and safe decisions and the decision to wait as long as they can. When that time comes to let go as least lets do so with knowledge so that our children can better defend themselves. To carry themselves with pride, respect for themselves and others, and safety always first. "
05/7/2008:
"Yeah i pretty much think it is the parents job to teach their kids about sex, i hoenstly dont think it is the teachers responsibility. Like it said some parents are concerned about what the teens are learning. But thank you everyone for the info. it realy helped with my paper :D"
04/23/2008:
"wow! i think it should be a law to have sex ed in schools and use scientific data on the subject! i am 16"
12/7/2007:
"I am a senior in high school and I have a few comments to make. I feel like Absinence Only Courses are inadequete and will lead to unwanted pregnancies and STDs. I realize that in an idealistic society your teenagers don't have sex. They don't say curse words, and they will never lose their bright eyed innocence. Unfortunatly we are living in an imperfect world. 80% of American women have sex before the age of 20, and 70% of those women, have it before thirteen! The fact is, we're kids, and we need to be taught about sex, diseases and ways to prevent pregnancies. If you go on leaving us uninformed then we will look to outside, non-reliable sources. What kind of parnt would want to jepordize their kid's saftey like that. Also, if you refuse a child the right to learn about contraceptives, than you have absolutley no right in being appaled at the current abortion rate. There are 1.3 million abortions a year. If you want to solve that problem, go to the root of the issue, I beg! you. Protect us. "
11/30/2007:
"'Abstinence is and will always be the answer and it needs to be taught through out the world. I am very sick and tired of hearin about people being pregnant and having stds. and I dont feel bad for them.' Fool. It's the abstinence-only education that leads to that. Teens are teens - and if they want sex, then they'll probably get it. Teachers telling them it is bad to have sex and that God will send you to hell for it won't MAKE many teens listen. (And as a bonus, not everyone is Christian.) With the other forms of education, teens can atleast learn to protect themselves."
11/27/2007:
"Abstinence is and will always be the answer and it needs to be taught through out the world. I am very sick and tired of hearin about people being pregnant and having stds. and I dont feel bad for them."
11/15/2007:
"Sex education should be taught the way it is taught in Europe. Their teen pregnancy rates makes ours look sick. They teach sex education as a health issue. The USA teaches it as a moral issue. Hence, we have more teen pregnancies than in all of Europe combined. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure this one out. Abstinance should be taught as the only safe sex. In other words, safe sex is no sex. But on the other hand, the use of condoms and birth control should definitely be taught. Bottom line, if the parents do not teach the kids everything about sex, then someone else will do it without your permission. That information may be a bit skewed."
08/20/2007:
"it's very important that schools (as well as parents) talk to their kids about STD, HIV and Sex Education in general. Children look to school as a superior place of learning, therefore Sex Education should be included. The MORE information kids have the better the chance of making RIGHT decisions !! I'm for the SEX ED in school & HOME !!' becouse more and more kids are becomming std inficted each year"
12/11/2006:
"I think it's very important that school (as well as parents) talk to their kids abour STD, HIV and Sex Education in general. Children look to school as a superior place of learning, therefore Sex Education should be included. The MORE information kids have the better the chance of making RIGHT decisions !! I'm for the SEX ED in school & HOME !!"
12/8/2006:
"Sex Ed. should be taught in school. It should be kept to facts, and notes should be sent home, when kids are younger, to notify parents of the discussion. If the parents choose not to have their child there, then the child should be excused without penalty. It's a better thing for the kids to have the facts, than to be ignorant. Abstinance should be encouraged, but the facts of what happens is important because too many parents don't discuss with their children what might happen at all or soon enough. We all want our children to be young and they seem to grow up too fast no matter what..."
11/28/2006:
"If you're even reading this posting, then it means that you care about making a difference in your kids life. I am torn between the awesome responsibility of being my son's primary teacher in life (as his father) and giving up some of that responsibility for the right to go to work each day in my specialty to nearly perfect strangers. In a perfect world, I believe in abstinence and morality and religion above all else. But, we were born as sinners. So we need to do everything we can to give our kids the tools to make the right choices over wrong. I consider myself an upper middle class American(education, values and income), yet I have a neice who is an unmarried teenage mother on public assistance in the State of Michigan. She is the product unmarried teenage parents who eventually were married and divorced. The patterns do repeat themselves and they are life changing. My brother dug himself out of a huge hole, paid child support and/or provided a home to her. She c! hose the easy wrong over the hard right because she did not have constant parental involvement from both parents married to each other. The mistake is recoverable, but it is a long and daunting road to travel. Thanks to this site and to you for caring about our children."
10/16/2006:
"We believe that sex outside of marriage is wrong, and have told our children that. My children know where babies come from. They have seen dogs/cats mating. They have been around when our dogs/cats have had puppies/kittens. We have told our children that homosexual sex is wrong and that it is un-natural. It is a learned behavior. At their ages, 10 and younger, they think kissing, and everything else, is 'yucky.' I believe that children should be taught abstinance outside of marriage. I believe that they should be taught about body parts in separate boy and girl classes, like in health. I think they should be taught about all the possible STD's. I think they should be taught about babies and children. If they want to have sex outside of marriage, then they need to learn how to properly care for children and take parenting classes, along with teaching them about marriage and relationships. All these need to be included."
09/12/2006:
"Remember the raging hormones that you experienced as a teenager? Unless you want to contribute to America's dismal unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease statistics you'll support sex education that emphasizes the use of condoms. Studies show that abstinence doesn't work. You might as well teach kids not to go out at dusk or dawn to avoid being stung by a mosquito carrying the West Nile Virus. Sex isn't just for procreation (at least not if you're doing it right). It doesn't have to be a death sentence either."
08/30/2006:
"What a great site with valuable links to help parents and students. I am a Registered Nurse and the links you provide have very important, safe information that covers a broad number of topics. I have friends who have not yet had the 'talk' with their preteen children and I will refer them to this site. Thank you so much!"
08/30/2006:
"Oh, good God in Heaven! I read the comment from the Texas mother dated 5/4/06 and about screamed. If you wait till the kids have hit puberty, it is too late! By then, they are seeking their answers elsewhere. If your child is 8 or 9, they are already seeking out material about their bodies and about the bodies of their friends and they are comparing. Little kids still play 'doctor', don't they? I have a friend who is in shock because her 6 year old son was kissed by a girl in his class. If they are old enough to kiss, they are old enough to get the age-specific 'Talk'."
06/12/2006:
"Any talk about sex to a young child or yound adult can be most uncomfortable. I believe that we as adult parents need to take the handle on this situation with our children and the schools should back us. After all we are the parents and God has given us the burden of responsibility not the schools. However, some children/young adults may feel more comfortable with someone other than a parent and may be a little more open and ask questions that they may not ask at home. If we as parents take the responsibility given to us and do our job as a parent there really should not be an issue. I am a mother of a 9yr old son. I plan on educating him with books (age appropriate) about his body and what sex is and that it was created for reproduction. As he gets older the education will become more involved (still age appropriate-to be determined by the parent). While the schools educate our children on the basic education, I have to honestly say that about 50% of what I learned in scho! ol has never helped me outside of the classroom. Therefore, I believe strongly that the schools should reinforce what we teach at home. After all, isn't our goal as parents and teachers to shape the next generations? Then we should be teaching thim about life also because that is what will have the biggest impact. Thank you for the great article. Keep up the good work. Sincerely, Texas mother. "
05/24/2006:
"This is a great article. As a mother of 4 young children I believe both safe sex and abstaining from sex should be taught. The parents and schools can teach abstanance from the day the child is born. Other factors (like peer presure and rebelion) do come in to play. Teaching children about all thier options and consequences of thier choices i feel is the most effective. I know a woman who is 25 years old. She became pregnant at 15. She had the baby and was pregnant again 10 months later. She had not realized HOW she got pregnant because she was never taught! She now knows all she missed out on when she was home with her babies and her friends were having fun. If someone taught her...things could have been different. Ryan Difiore Proud Mom to Veronica 8, Jonathan 5, Sarah 2 and Nicholas 10 months"
05/24/2006:
"As a sophmore at my school, I had the pleasure of being a member of a section of Planned Parenthood called Teen Council. This group is designed for teens to teach other teens the essential facts of sex ed. As a teen in this situation, I have learned so much, apart from what I learned in my health class which initally was the reason I joined. I've learned about abstinence AND the different forms of birth control, from plain-old condoms to the Depo Provera shots. And just because you give teenagers information about birth control and STDs doesn't mean that you are going to encourage them to have sexual relations. In fact, in my case, for example, it actually made me decide to wait until I could handle anything that could possibly come my way if I have sex. Plus, you need the information in life eventually, especially considering that almost all people have sex at least once in their lifetimes."
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