A vast majority of public school students are taught some form of sex education, but a growing number of schools are focusing on sexual abstinence rather than contraception, two new studies show.
The concentration on abstinence-only instruction—teaching that teenagers should avoid the risk of pregnancy or disease by waiting until marriage to have sex— has increased markedly in the past 10 years, say researchers at the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
The study compared two nationally representative samples of 7th through 12th grade sex education teachers, one survey conducted in 1988 and the other last year. Researchers found that 23 percent of those teachers taught abstinence as the only way of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in 1999, compared with only 2 percent in 1988. The surveys questioned 4,200 teachers in 1988 and 3,700 last year.
For More Information
“Changing Emphases in Sexuality Education in U.S. Public Secondary Schools, 1988-1999,” is available online from the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
“Sex Education in America: A View From Inside the Nation’s Classrooms,” is available online from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)
Some topics, such as HIV/AIDS and other STDs, abstinence, condom use, and resistance to peer pressure to engage in sex, were being taught in earlier grades in 1999 than in 1988, the study found. Most such topics, however, were still taught less often and in later grades than teachers believed they should be.
In addition, the teachers in the more recent survey were less likely to say they covered such topics as birth control, abortion, sexual orientation, and how to obtain contraceptives and STD services, according to the study.
“Many schools are in a retreat when it comes to teaching more comprehensive sex education,” said David J. Landry, an author of the Guttmacher report and a senior research associate at the New York City institute.
“It’s a wonder that teens are doing so well given that instruction comes so late,” Mr. Landry said. He referred to the decline in the U.S. teenage birthrate, which has been falling steadily since 1991 and reached a near-record low in 1998. (“Health Update: Teenage Pregnancy,” Dec. 15, 1999.)
The report’s authors point to a number of reasons for the shift in the approach to teaching sex education.
Pressure to teach abstinence as the central component of sex education led to the establishment in 1996 of a five- year federal and state program designed to finance educational efforts focused narrowly or exclusively on the promotion of sexual abstinence, the report says.
According to the study, teachers in the 1999 survey continued to express insufficient support from their administrations, communities, and students’ parents to offer more comprehensive programs.
Tamara Kreinin, the president of the New York City-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, believes that many schools shy away from comprehensive sex education because of potential controversy.
“One loud voice scares schools away and encourages them to send a ‘just say no’ message,” which puts students at risk for STDs, pregnancy, and HIV, Ms. Kreinin maintained.
A second study released last week also found that abstinence figures prominently in sex education. But the study by the Kaiser Family Foundation notes that the boundaries between what is actually covered in abstinence-only and more comprehensive sex education classes are often hazy.
Despite the significant differences in the two approaches, the study found that, in practice, some classes described as abstinence-only do offer practical information about birth control or safer sex. On the other hand, many comprehensive sex education classes do not actually provide information about how to use or where to get contraceptives, the study found.
|The following shows what topics or messages sex education teachers deem most important to convey to their students in sex education classes.|
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|SOURCE: The Alan Guttmacher Institute|
Kaiser’s researchers conducted telephone interviews with 313 principals, 1,001 sex education teachers, and 1,501 pairs of students and parents. The principal and teacher samples represent public schools enrolling grades 7-12. The parent- student survey consisted of households with at least one 7th to 12th grader in public school.
The Kaiser study also reveals a gap between what parents want schools to teach and what students and teachers say is covered in the classroom.
Parents said sex education should cover such subjects as the basics of reproduction, information about HIV/AIDS and other STDs, and abstinence. Many also said they would prefer schools to address more controversial issues, such as abortion and sexual orientation. Students and teachers, however, said more contentious subjects were covered less often.
“What comes across in this study is that parents look to schools to prepare their children for real life,” said Tina Hoff, the director of public health for the Menlo Park, Calif.-based Kaiser Family Foundation. “Their concerns are practical, not political.”
Support at Home
Heather Cirmo, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Family Research Council, said she was encouraged by the increased attention paid to abstinence in sex education. But she said it was a fallacy that society supports abstinence until marriage.
“It’s sad that parents have been duped into believing comprehensive sex education is what’s best for their children,” Ms. Cirmo said. “We could do a lot more to support abstinence education in the home as well as the schools.”