Surveys Examine Sex Education Programs

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Most school districts have comprehensive sexual education policies and curricula in place, according to two national surveys to be released this week, but sexuality education, and particularly the promotion of abstinence-only education, remain magnets for controversy.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive-health organization based in New York City, and the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-related philanthropy based in Menlo Park, Calif., have found that sex education in public schools is likely to include information about both abstinence and contraception, rather than present abstinence as the only option.

Researchers at the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that while a growing number of schools have made abstinence education part of their curricula in recent years, one school district in three forbids information about contraception entirely, or limits its discussion to the relative ineffectiveness of contraception in protecting against unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The institute surveyed 825 school district superintendents in October 1998.

Nevertheless, "in some ways, the findings are very disappointing," said Monica Rodriguez, the director of education at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a strong proponent of comprehensive sex education. "Too many young people are still being denied information that is critical to decisions about their sexuality."

Most school districts responding to the Guttmacher survey, 69 percent, have districtwide policies in place to teach sex education. Of those districts, 14 percent have comprehensive policies that address abstinence as one option in a broader curriculum, 51 percent have "abstinence plus" policies that allow the benefits of contraception to be discussed, and 35 percent have abstinence-only policies that prohibit discussions about contraception.

Those numbers are troubling to David J. Landry, an author of the study and a senior research associate with the Guttmacher Institute. "Students aren't receiving accurate, balanced information about how to protect themselves from unplanned pregnancy or disease," he said.

Programs most effective in changing young people's behavior are those that address abstinence along with contraception, the Guttmacher report argues. But educational efforts that focus narrowly or exclusively on abstinence promotion are being widely embraced, the authors write.

For example, the federal welfare-reform law passed in 1996 designated $250 million to be spent over five years for states to provide programs stressing abstinence from sexual activity until marriage, and made no mention of contraception. ("Funding To Urge Sexual Abstinence Ignites Debate," June 11, 1997.)

The Kaiser Family Foundation's "National Survey of Public Secondary School Principals: The Politics of Sex Education," a telephone survey of 313 principals between March and May of this year, found that 58 percent of principals described their schools' sex education program as comprehensive—teaching that "young people should wait to have sex, but if they do not, they should use birth control and practice safe sex."

"The level of debate over sex education is much less at local levels" than at the national level, said Tina Hoff, the director of public-health information and communication for Kaiser. One reason for that, she said, is that most decisions about such programs are made locally. Even so, the abstinence-only approach was the issue most discussed or debated in recent years for 31 percent of principals surveyed.

The Guttmacher study will be published in the November/December issue of Family Planning Perspective. The issue is available online at The Kaiser survey is available online at

Vol. 19, Issue 16, Page 13

Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as Surveys Examine Sex Education Programs
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