Promoting healthier views of sexuality through comprehensive sex education
Sarah Killian, a 19-year-old freshman at Ithaca College, fondly remembers her experience with sex education in high school. “I didn’t realize I was receiving abstinence-only education until I woke up one morning, as a sophomore in high school, and realized that I still didn’t know entirely how sex worked” Killian said. “Our teachers would always compare our ‘lady parts’ to things like locks or tape: ‘your lock only fits one key’ or ‘if you stick your piece of tape to a bunch of different things, it will lose its stickiness and nobody will want to use it.’”
Though Killian’s story may seem to simply be a result of her Catholic-school education, the trend towards abstinence-only sex education has affected the entire nation. Beginning in the Reagan administration, abstinence-only sex ed programs started receiving major federal funding to teach children to abstain from sexual activity until marriage.
Defined by Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, an abstinence education is one that “teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children,” and “that sexual activity outside the context of marriage” is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents and society.
Ironically, as detrimental to society as abstinence-only sex ed programs claim non-marital sex to be, abstinence-only education has had its own interesting effects on society. A number of studies conducted throughout the last 20 years, including those published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the Guttmacher Institute and Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health have all definitively concluded that abstinence-only education is ineffective and may actually spread misinformation regarding sexual health to students.
Many abstinence-only programs discuss the ineffectiveness of birth control, exaggerate pregnancy statistics and often blur the lines between religion and science, preaching chastity rather than informing students how to safely engage in sexual activities.
It is ironic, then, that students who receive abstinence-only educations are no less likely to engage in sex than those who receive a comprehensive sex education or no sex education at all. In fact, those who become sexually active after receiving an abstinence-only or abstinence-plus education are more likely than their peers to engage in risky sexual behavior, such as not using contraceptives.
Maureen Kelly, vice president of education, training and comunications for Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes, recognized this disturbing trend in statistics. “The failure rate of abstinence is pretty high,” she said, “because if you’re relying on not ‘doing it’ as your primary method of protecting yourself and then you choose not to use that method, there’s not a lot of safety net there.”
On the contrary, comprehensive sex education programs have been proven to delay the onset of sexual activity, reduce the number of teen pregnancies resulting from risky sexual behavior and increase contraceptive use amongst young people. All research on comprehensive sex ed programs suggests that receiving a comprehensive education does not increase the likelihood of teenagers engaging in sexual activity.
Dakin Camp, a sophomore TV-R major at Ithaca College, recalls her experience with a comprehensive sex education: “We talked about [everything in class, from] female condoms to male condoms, the pill, the shot, and things like dental dams and lubricant. Most of the education was focused on STI prevention and not so much pregnancy prevention. We also had a part where my teacher debunked any common myths, like using two condoms could somehow be better than one, etc.”
Though comprehensive sex education has been proven to be fundamentally more effective than abstinence-only education, abstinence-only programs were the only programs that could apply for federal funding. Between 1996 and 2008, Congress approved more than $1.5 billion to be funded through several main outlets. Until recently, this trend of government funding supporting sex ed programs that proved to be ineffective continued to exist in the United States.
In 2010, the Obama Administration cut off the outlets that were supplying federal dollars to abstinence-only sex education programs: thereby leveling the playing field. Abstinence-only education programs no longer championed comprehensive sex education programs. However, without recent research, one cannot say whether the number of comprehensive sex education programs in the country has increased.
While comprehensive sex ed programs are more accurate, informative and effective than abstinence-only programs, America’s standards for sex education still fall far behind those of other countries. As a result, America has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STI infection in the industrialized world. Fifteen to 19-year-olds only make up 25 percent of the American population, but they account for over half of all new sexually transmitted infections per year.
“We, as a country have done such a poor job. We don’t have good national sex ed policies,” Kelly said. “It doesn’t help that we live in a sexually repressed society that makes everybody feel more shame and silence than a sense of understanding.”
Kelly, along with other healthcare professionals and educators from across the country, recently participated joined with Advocates for Youth, an organization that encourages better sex education for young people, on their European Study Tour. The tour brings participating members to France, Germany and the Netherlands to evaluate various attitudes and policies about sex and sexual education in countries with much lower pregnancy rates, birth rates and STI infection rates amongst teens.
“It is fascinating, the cultural differences between really talking in honest, neutral detail about sexuality at a young age and [the practices in the United States]” Kelly said. “In addition to really great school programs, there’s also a really big emphasis on family communication about sexuality.”
Advocates for Youth summarizes the main differences between American and European sex ed in the following analyses: first of all, there exists a “pragmatic approach to adolescent sexual health where science, not religious ideology, dictates public health policies and programs and education is valued, not feared.” Additionally, European teenagers benefit from “the effective use of mass media public education campaigns” outside of the classroom. As a result, views regarding sex in France, Germany and the Netherlands are much different than those in America; these European countries advocate “a public acceptance of adolescent sexual development as normal and healthy.”
“[Sex education] isn’t universal” Kelly said of her experience in Europe. “But we don’t have any really strong national policy that indicates what schools need to do. There’s a lot of guidance on the national level, but that’s just guidance. [As a country], we do a lot of unfunded mandate and ‘really good ideas’ but there’s very little policy and very little procedural approach to how these programs should be happening in communities.”
In January 2012, the American School Health Association, the National Education Association Health Information Network, the American Association for Health Education, the Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education and Planned Parenthood collectively sponsored a special publication of the Journal of School Health, titled “National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K-12.” The 42-page report highlights key topic areas related to sex and sexuality in which students should be receiving information, and at what age they should be receiving that information. For example, in regards to “Pregnancy and Reproduction” by the end of the 2nd grade, the report suggests that “students should be able to explain that all living things produce.” While by the end of the 12th grade, “students should be able to compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of abstinence and other contraceptive methods, including condoms.”
Though not enforced by any policy, the standards defined in this report suggest a hopeful future for American sex education. As society moves away from its history of abstinence-only education and adopts comprehensive sex education as the norm in schools, students have a better chance of learning unbiased, informative material that will help them to lead healthy sex lives when the time comes.
Kimberly Capehart is a junior documentary studies major who thinks sex ed should be a little more than just the birds and the bees. Email her at kcapeha1[at]ithaca.edu.