Sex education, sometimes called sexuality education or sex and relationships education, is the process of learning about and forming attitudes and beliefs about sex, sexual identity, relationships and intimacy. Sex education is also about developing young people’s skills so that they make informed choices about their behavior, and feel confident and competent about acting on these choices.
The program aims to reduce the risks of potentially negative outcomes from sexual behavior like unwanted or unplanned pregnancies and infection with STDs, and to enhance the quality of relationships. It also aims to improve young people’s ability to make decisions over their entire lifetime.
Teaching abstinence has always had a certain appeal. How many parents disagree with the notion that their teens should postpone sex? But abstinence-only programs aren’t having much success.
An eight year, government-funded study released in 2007 by highly respected, non-partisan Mathematica Policy Research Inc. found that there is no evidence that abstinence-only programs reduce the rate of teen sexual activity.
In 2006, Congress’s General Accounting Office found that most abstinence-until-marriage programs are not reviewed in a scientifically-acceptable manner. Yet Congress has failed to trim the $176 million a year in federal aid that helps support the programs.
Abstinence-only advocates attempt to take credit for the downward trend of teen pregnancy rates. However, health researchers find that the actual reason is the fear of contracting STDs – a risk of which teens are now acutely aware. A federal survey on risky behavior finds that 88% of teens were taught about AIDS and HIV in schools. The same survey also found that nearly half of all high school students have had sex.
So what does work? Multiple studies have found that a mix of abstinence training and comprehensive sex education can both delay first sexual encounters and deter pregnancies and disease.
Despite those facts, the Bush administration has pushed abstinence-only sex education, both in the U.S. and abroad.
There are currently three federal programs dedicated to funding restrictive abstinence-only education – Section 510 of the Social Security Act, the Adolescent Family Life Act’s teenage pregnancy prevention component, and the Special Projects of Regional and National Significance program (SPRANS) – with total annual funding of $102 million for Fiscal Year 2002.
Federal law establishes a stringent eight point definition of “abstinence-only education” that requires programs to teach that sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong and harmful – for people of any age – and prohibits them from advocating contraceptive use or discussing contraceptive methods except to emphasize their failure rates.
The Mexico City Policy, or Global Gag Rule, was reinstated by President George W. Bush on his first day in office in January 2001. These restrictions mandate that no U.S. family planning assistance can be provided to foreign NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that use funding from any other source to perform abortions in cases other than a threat to the woman’s life, rape or incest, provide counseling and referral for abortion, or lobby to make abortion legal or more available in their country. Organizations that do not sign the rule lose access to U.S.-donated contraceptives, including condoms.
In July of 2007, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who served from 2002 to 2006, revealed that the White House insisted for political reasons that he ignore the facts about sex education and focus solely on abstinence.
Effective sex-ed programs have been shown to increase young people's levels of knowledge about sex and sexuality, push back the average age at which they first have sexual intercourse and decrease risk when they do have sex. Evidence suggests that effective school programs will focus on reducing specific risky behaviors, provide accurate information about the risks associated with sexual activity, contraception and birth control, and sexual decision making, and deal with peer pressures on young people. These programs teach many angles of sexual activity and use a variety of teaching methods to educate.
These programs must take into account the information that kids are getting from other sources such as their friends and the media, as well as respond to the varying needs of the specific audience based on their gender, their previous knowledge, their age and their experiences. All the elements are important and inter-related, and sex education needs to be supported by links to sexual health services, otherwise it will not be effective.