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Sex Education Can Delay Sexual Activity, Study Says

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However, students who are already sexually active by the time they begin receiving sex education are unlikely to change their behaviors or to use contraceptives more frequently as a result of the instruction, the report concludes.

The study, which appeared in the November/December issue of Family Planning Perspectives, a journal published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, is one of the first to show through a rigorous evaluation that sex education can postpone the first act of intercourse among inexperienced adolescents.

According to the authors of the new study--a team of researchers from two universities, the San Francisco school district, and ETA Associates, which designed the experimental sex-education program-five previous major studies have not conclusively shown whether sex-education programs delay or promote sexual activity among high-school students.

The new study involved a survey of 758 high-school students at 13 schools in California. About half of the students were taught Reducing the Risk, an experimental program that was included in a mandatory health-education class. The remaining students were exposed to their school's standard sex-education curriculum, which was also included in a mandatory health class.

Students in both groups were queried about their knowledge of contraception and their sexual practices before they received the instruction, and at 6 months and 18 months after they had completed the class.

Unlike traditional sex-education programs, the experimental curriculum teaches students how to resist peer pressure to have sex, and encourages them to visit stores and clinics to get information about birth control.

According to the study, students in the experimental group consistently knew more about contraception 18 months after the program ended than did students in the control group. This knowledge, however, did not affect their behavior; sexually active students in both groups were about equally likely to engage in unprotected intercourse, the study found.

However, at the 18-month mark, 24 percent fewer students in the experimental group than in the control group had begun sexual activity, the report said. Exposure to the curriculum also reduced by 40 percent unprotected intercourse among low-risk students and students who were sexually inexperienced when the program began. The researchers also noted that the program, which was considered controversial in some of the communities that included it, did not increase sexual activity among teenagers.

On the basis of this and other studies, "it may actually be easier to delay the onset of intercourse than to increase contraceptive practice," the authors conclude.--E.F.

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