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The Controversy Over Sex Education

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One of the most controversial issues today is sex education. This is an issue that affects nearly every American family.  Nearly nine out of ten public school students have at least one sex education course at some time between 7th and 12th grade, and 95% of public secondary schools teach some form of sex education (“Sex Education in”, 2002).  The purpose of sex education classes is to give students information that will help them avoid sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unwanted pregnancies. The debate is focused around two alternatives, abstinence-only education and comprehensive sex education. Abstinence-only education teaches children to abstain from sex until they are married. Abstinence, proponents of this alternative say, is the only way to be totally safe from STDs and unwanted pregnancy. Comprehensive sex education teaches children about contraception as well as abstinence as a means of birth control and disease prevention.

History of the Controversy

The first step to understanding the controversy over what type sex education is best is to understand why sex education is needed. There are two reasons: disease prevention and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. Sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, are a widespread health problem in the United States. In 2009, 1,244,180 cases of Chlamydia trachomatis infection, 301,174 cases of gonorrhea,  13,997 cases of P&S syphilis were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number of Chlamydia trachomatis infections is the largest number of cases ever reported to CDC for any condition (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010). A total of 35, 825 new AIDs cases were diagnosed in 2009 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011). These numbers show that it is important to give young people education that can help them make good decisions and avoid these diseases. 

When the AIDS epidemic began, states began to pass laws requiring sex education classes. Federal involvement has been in the form of funding for these programs, beginning in 1988. In 1996, Congress passed a law making funds available to states for abstinence-only education. In a 1999 survey of principals, 58% said that their school had a comprehensive sex education policy, while 34% said their school had an abstinence-only policy. (“Sex Education in”, 2002).

Current Controversy

Those who support the abstinence-only method of sex education believe that including information about contraception undermines the message that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the only totally reliable way to avoid STDs and unwanted pregnancy. They argue that talk of “safe sex” encourages children to have sex at a young age. Many also argue that if students have sex education classes early on, this may cause them to start thinking about sex at an earlier age than they would have otherwise, leading to an increase in teen pregnancies and STDs. Often these people oppose the inclusion of material about homosexuality, bisexuality, and other alternative lifestyles in the sex education curriculum. Further inflaming the issue is the fact that many of the people who oppose the more comprehensive approach to sex education do so for religious reasons.  These people are morally opposed to these topics being discussed in the schools and feel that their children are being taught values incompatible with their own.

People who support comprehensive sex education may agree that children should abstain from sex until they are ready for sexual activity. They disagree with abstinence-only supporters about the teaching of contraception methods, however.  They feel that it is imperative to teach young people about contraception because many of those young people are already having sex, and many of those who aren't already will choose to do, even if they are taught that abstinence is the best policy. Thus, supporters of comprehensive sex education fear that if young people are not taught proper methods of contraception, more teens will contract STDs or become pregnant at an age when they are not yet ready to care for a child. Also, many homosexual rights advocates oppose abstinence-only programs because these programs teach that a monogamous heterosexual marriage is the only acceptable way to prevent disease.

Studies on the Effects of Sex Education on Teen STD and Pregnancy Rates

Gerald Oettinger (1999) found that comprehensive sex education was associated with an increase in the number of female students who had sex at a young age, and a small increase in the teen pregnancy rate. These increases were larger for those who received sex education at an earlier age. This supports the claims of the supporters of abstinence-only education that teaching students about contraception encourages risky behavior.

Another study found that an abstinence-only program reduced the probability of a teen having sexual intercourse during the two-year study period from 48.5% to 33.5%. This study also percentages of teens who used condoms when they had sex was the same whether the teens had received abstinence-only education, comprehensive sex education, or no sex education. The children in this study were between 11 and 15 years old, and the average age was 12.2 years. (Jemmott, Jemmott, and Fong 2010)

This study shows that abstinence-only programs can delay the time at which teens begin having sex, thus reducing their exposure to disease.

A study of the effects of condom distribution to teens found that teens who participated in the program were no more likely to begin having sex at an early age than those who did not (Sellers, McGraw and McKinlay 1994). This contradicts the Oettinger study and supports the contention of comprehensive sex education advocates that teaching children about contraception does not encourage sexual activity.

Another study (Mueller, Gavin, and Kulkarni 2008) showed that both boys and girls who had received comprehensive sex education were less likely to have sexual intercourse than those who had not had sex education, and that girls who had sex education were more likely to use birth control than those who did not have sex education. This also contradicts the study by Oettinger.

Possible Solutions

Regardless of the solution that is chosen, a large group of American citizens will be unhappy with the choice.  Such conflicts are inevitable when nearly all children are compelled to attend schools run by a single government.  There are some compromises already being made, however.  There are now  “abstinence plus” curricula that teach abstinence as the only way to eliminate the risk of pregnancy or infection, but with information on contraception as a way to reduce risk for those who choose to have sex (“Sex Education in” 2002 ).

The conflicting research may also show a partial solution. The Oettinger (1999) study showed that the increase in sexual activity for students receiving comprehensive sex education was greater for those who had sex education early in adolescence.  The children who were subjects of the other study (Jemmott, Jemmott, and Fong 2010) that showed an increase in sexual activity had an average age of 12.2.  Perhaps it would be best to give younger students an abstinence only education and give older teens a more comprehensive sex education.

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