Educators’ opinions continue to differ on which method of sex education to implement in schools.
Ilir Sulejmani didn’t have much formal sex education. In high school, it consisted of a two-week chapter in a life management course. What he did know came from friends and the Internet.
“Most of what I know from sex education didn’t come from school,” said the University of Illinois junior. “It would’ve been nice to have someone who knows what they’re talking about teaching a course.”
The role schools play in educating teenagers about sexuality have come to the forefront in the wake of a New York Post report about the New York City program that makes Plan B emergency contraception available to girls as young as 14 at public high schools.
More than 50 schools are now a part of the program that started four years ago, 13 of which have implemented it since January 2011. Parents can opt their children out of the program, although the city Health Department reported only between 1 and 2% of parents have done so.
“It’s a good idea because the best thing you can do to protect yourself against pregnancy if you’re having sex is to take contraceptives,” said John Santelli, a professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia University. “What better place to get it than a health professional at your public school?”
A study released in April by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2010, compared with 2008, 11 states reported teaching less about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases — along with pregnancy prevention — in middle school. In high school, the percentage of schools teaching eight sex education topics was higher in only two states and lower in one, and the percentage of schools teaching condom-related topics was lower in eight states.
“Part of what happens is that, at least in American culture, we do not start sexual education until children are at least in high school,” said Mary Ramey, a lecturer of communications at the University of Illinois. “By then, students have already received lots of messages about sex, they already have formed opinions about sex and for most of them, they’ve started experimenting with sex in some way.”
Comprehensive sex education is more controversial than abstinence-only programs, Ramey said.
“There are people who have these convictions that if we are handing out birth control, if we are giving young people access to this kind of information and these kinds of resources, that they’re going to be even more likely to engage in these behaviors,” she said.
On the contrary, those who go through comprehensive programs delay sexual initiation and are more likely to use contraception and condoms when they do begin to have sex, said Debra Hauser, executive director at Advocates for Youth, an organization that works with youth to help them make informed decisions about their reproductive and sexual health.
“Multiple research studies confirm that comprehensive sex education does not cause young people to initiate sex earlier or to have sex more frequently,” she said in an email. “Teaching young people about sexual health does not cause them to have sex any more than umbrellas cause rain.”
But even though that might be the case, there are instances where abstinence-only education is just as effective in delaying sex or reducing teen pregnancy and STDs, said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project.
“Young adults who have fewer sexual partners end up having less divorce, less pregnancy, less STDs,” he said. “There is some evidence that suggests multiple partners leads to depression.”
Teens are getting many messages about contraception and not enough about abstinence, said Scott Phelps, executive director at the Abstinence and Marriage Education Partnership. The idea that the majority of teens are having sex and there is therefore a greater need for information about contraception is not true, he said — in a May 2012 study, the CDC found that between 2006 and 2010, 57% of females 15 to 19 had never had sex.
“What we want to do is help these kids and encourage them to have a healthy, happy marriage,” Phelps said. “We think teens should have the opportunity to hear that message and decide for themselves.”
Phelps said comprehensive sex education surprisingly often ignores abstinence as an option.
“If it’s ‘comprehensive,’ shouldn’t it teach everything?” he said. “They don’t teach the safest, healthiest, best choice, ironically.”
Giving morning-after pills to teens at school is a harmful, shortsighted tactic that doesn’t really solve the problem, Phelps said.
“It may give kids the false conception that if they use contraception, it will eliminate risks,” he said. “There’s still the potential for physical, emotional, mental risks for which contraception has no answer.”
Phelps said while abstinence programs do talk about contraception, they want to make clear to students that abstinence is the only foolproof way to prevent pregnancy, STDs and the mental, emotional and social effects of premarital sex.
“We want them to understand the difference between risk reduction and risk elimination,” he said.
Although abstinence-only programs have the benefit of making it clear to students that it is the only way to completely prevent pregnancy, they tend to be plagued by misinformation — such as inaccurately reporting condom and contraceptive failure rates, Santelli said.
The “conspiracy of silence” that surrounds teen sexuality arises partly from political fears as well as the embarrassment of parents, who rarely go to school boards and demand better sex education, said David Wiley, professor of health education at Texas State University.
Hauser said part of the problem is also that society views sexuality itself as something negative, toxic and contaminated that needs to be controlled, rather than as a normal, healthy part of life.
“If our own sexuality is somehow contaminated, then feelings of fear, shame and denial are natural corollaries,” she said. “And fear, shame and denial undermine prevention, communication and basic self-worth.”
Europe has much more of an open environment surrounding teen sexuality, Wiley said, whereas America sees it as a moral issue. It’s an adult problem — adults fail to teach kids about sex and contraception and then are somehow surprised when STD and pregnancy rates rise, he continued.
“It’s the adults that are creating the problem,” Wiley said. “We can face the reality that youth are sexually active or we can have this pollyannaish world where we think this isn’t going on.”
“Schools need to talk to parents, and they need to develop a dialogue about what they’re doing and why,” he said. “In essence, if you have the parents doing their job and schools doing their job, we would have much less teen pregnancy, less HIV/AIDS, less STDs.”
Santelli agress that parents and schools need to work together to solve the problem. Parents are good at teaching kids values, while schools are effective in giving factual information and social skills to teens, he said.
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