New Study May Provide First Evidence Of the Effectiveness of Sex Education
Knowledge that adolescents obtain in sex-education classes is linked to behavioral changes that could lead to sexual abstention or effective use of contraceptives, according to a new study released this month.
The four-year study of eight community- and school-based sex-education programs in Texas and California may be the first documented evidence of the effectiveness of sex education, according to the researchers who conducted the study, published in the November/December issue of Family Planning Perspectives. The journal is published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, an organization affiliated with Planned Parenthood.
"If you actually bombard people with information, you can raise their level of cognition, but it's not at all clear that they will take that information and do something good with it," said Marvin Eisen, a researcher involved in the study and the principal research scientist with Sociometrics Corporation, a California-based research firm specializing in adolescent sexual behavior.
"The majority of the [past] studies simply haven't followed kids long enough" to find the link between knowledge and behavior, he said.
The study of 1,444 adolescents ages 13 to 19 found that publicly funded sex-education programs as brief as 8 to 12 hours seem to help teenagers initiate and maintain relatively effective contraceptive use.
The contraceptive and sexual habits of participating students were followed up one year after the conclusion of their courses to show the link between knowledge and behavior.
Mr. Eisen cautioned that further study is necessary, and that the study compared different approaches to sex education, not sex education versus no sex education.
"I don't think that anyone should be fooled that 8 or 12 or even 20 hours will change the world," he warned.
In the study, students were randomly assigned to either an experi4mental or a standard sex-education program.
The experimental class involved role playing and discussions of sexual risk and of feelings, values, and emotions.
The standard classes, the report said, did not tend to focus on teenagers' perceptions of their own susceptibility to, or the seriousness of, pregnancy. Nor did they discuss at length the benefits of birth control. They also shied away from active student involvement, and relied more on lectures, handouts, and films to cover reproductive biology and contraceptive alternatives.
Male students in the experimental classes were more likely to abstain from sex or use birth control than were those in the standard classes, the researchers found. Males in the experimental program who had not had sex before the study began were less likely than those in the standard classes to begin sexual activity by the time of the one-year follow-up. The experimental class also led to significant improvement in effective contraceptive use among males.
Those findings did not hold true for female students. Females who had not had sex before enrolling in the experimental classes were just as likely as those in the standard classes to continue abstaining one year later. Indeed, females attending the standard course were significantly more likely to use contraception, the study reported.
The authors cautioned, however, that most of those females relied on condoms, making it impossible to say whether the decision to use contraception was theirs or their partners'.
Mr. Eisen said role-play activities--such as putting males into the position of females being pressured into having sex--had an "Aha!" effect on them, while females were more likely to understand those pressures without classroom exposure.
"What guys reported was, 'Oh my gosh, is that what I sound like? Gosh, we come off sounding like bozos,"' he said.
He added that for females, the role-playing experience may have been8too intense, indicating that they preferred a more structured approach.
The researchers suggested that their findings mean that the question about sex education should move from "Should there be sex education?'' to "What kind should there be?"
"I don't think the conservatives are going to like this, but we did find that ... previous sex education ... was a significant predictor of behavior a year after intervention," Mr. Eisen said.
Courses, he said, should be tailored to the needs of the students. Males and females have different needs, as do sexually experienced and sexually inexperienced students.
The research, funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, two foundations, and the State of Texas, was conducted by Mr. Eisen; Gail L. Zellman, a research psychologist at the rand Corporation; and Alfred L. McAlister, associate director of the Center for Health Promotion at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center.
Free reprints of the study are available from Susan Tew at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 111 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10003; telephone (212) 254-5656.