Last Updated on June 4, 2020 by Saurabh Sethi, MD, MPH
This guest post was written by one of our contributors, Social & Behavioral Health Expert, Janelle Knowlton, MPH.
Sex – it’s an act that humans and many other living things engage in for pleasure and/or reproduction. Most people will, whether for pleasure or reproduction, someday have a sexual encounter. However, there is a cause for concern when it comes to adolescents or even adults having sex without being fully aware of the risks of such an intimate act: teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), to name just a couple.
Despite recent drops, the US teen birth rate is still higher than that of many other developed countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, and our youth ages 15-24 contract almost half of the nation’s 20 million STIs every year.
Still, sex is a topic that is not openly discussed in our culture, because it has ties to individuals’ morals and beliefs. The majority of Americans have only discussed sex as adolescents during a sex-ed course. As a result, the question of whether to teach abstinence-only or comprehensive sexual education has been a heated debate in the United States for years.
An abstinence-only approach focuses on teaching young people that abstaining from sex until marriage is the only way to ensure they will avoid STIs and unintended pregnancy.
Some standards included in the definition of abstinence-only are that ‘a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity’ and that ‘sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.’
As funding for abstinence-only programming relies on those standards, educators are not allowed to provide information that promotes or advocates contraceptive use, and they can choose whether to discuss contraceptive methods at all or to do so in a negative manner by emphasizing their failure rates.
Until recently, an abstinence-only approach was the only type of sex-ed eligible for federal funding, and thus, was taught in the majority of schools – since 1996 alone, the federal government has spent more than one billion dollars on abstinence-only sexual education programs.
Comprehensive sex education teaches about reproduction and life skills including: family and partner communication, how to develop healthy violence-free relationships, and how drugs/alcohol can affect responsible sexual decisions. It also provides information about the health benefits and side effects of all contraceptive and barrier methods used as a means to prevent pregnancy and to reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections and diseases. (STIs/STDs)
Supporters of comprehensive sex education typically encourage delayed sexual activity for younger teens, but they are also trying to prepare young teens to protect themselves properly when they do choose to have sex. They believe this is the most practical approach, because statistics show that while only 13% of teens have engaged in sex by age 15, by their 19th birthday, 7 in 10 teens of both sexes have had intercourse.
A comprehensive education introduces teens to resources and fosters the confidence necessary to protect oneself when/if they choose to begin engaging in sexual activities.
For more on the differences between abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education.
Key Findings Comparing the Two Approaches
Several studies conducted by Guttmacher Institute examining both comprehensive and abstinence-only programs have found results that illustrate the problems with how the US handles sexual education.
One study compares the information teens received on contraceptives during abstinence-only versus comprehensive sex-ed between 1995 and 2002. It found that the proportion of teens learning about birth control methods declined sharply when abstinence-only education funding grew.
Another study showed the unrealistic nature of an abstinence-only education standard. It found that premarital sex is a normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans and has been for decades. By the time an American reaches the age of 44, 99% have had sexual intercourse, 95% have done so before marriage, and 74% have had sex before age 20.
There is also far more support for a comprehensive approach than we have been led to believe. Based on a 2005-2006 nationally representative survey of US adults, most believe that sex education should promote abstinence while providing information about contraceptives. Regardless of political affiliation or church membership, 82% of those polled supported a comprehensive approach, 68% favored instruction on how to use a condom, and only 36% supported abstinence-only sex education.
Why Comprehensive Sex-Ed is The Bomb
Abstinence-only education does nothing to prepare individuals who choose to become sexually active, and some evidence shows that it may be causing long-term psychological and physiological damage. It’s also been found that when people receive a comprehensive education, they choose to delay sexual activity longer than those who are educated by an abstinence-only approach, and when they do engage in sexual activities, they are using barriers correctly and more consistently.
If you are interested in learning about where your state stands on the matter or how to get involved in supporting comprehensive sex-ed please go here. For more on this topic you can also visit The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), Advocates for Youth, or the Office of Adolescent Health with US Health and Human Services (HHS).
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Janelle Knowlton, MPH strives to cultivate healthy attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors surrounding sexual health. While completing her BS in Health Education from the University of Arizona, Janelle traveled to Tanzania, Africa to teach HIV/AIDS education to youth and adults. After working for a year in the mental health field, she returned to school to complete her Masters in Public Health from Boston University. Her unique blend of experience and education allows her to view health problems through a multidimensional lens. To read her full bio, along with links to her recent posts, check out our contributors page. You can find more information about Janelle Knowlton on her website or by visiting her on LinkedIn.
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Have you also wondered about the differences between abstinence-only and comprehensive sex-ed or why people are advocating for one approach over the other? Did this help answer your questions? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!