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Sexuality Education Q & A

  • What is sexuality education?
  • Where do young people learn about sexuality?
  • What are the goals of school-based sexuality education?
  • How do school-based sexuality education programs differ?
  • Ideally, what topics are included in comprehensive sexuality education?
  • What are students learning in today’s school-based sexuality education?
  • What does the research say about comprehensive sexuality education?
  • Who decides what young people learn in sexuality education classes?

What Is Sexuality Education?

Sexuality education is a lifelong process of acquiring information and forming attitudes, beliefs, and values. It encompasses sexual development, sexual and reproductive health, interpersonal relationships, affection, intimacy, body image, and gender roles.

Where Do Young People Learn About Sexuality?

Sexuality education begins at home. Parents and caregivers are—and ought to be—the primary sexuality educators of their children. Teachable moments—opportunities to discuss sexuality issues with children—occur on a daily basis.

From the moment of birth, children learn about love, touch, and relationships. Infants and toddlers learn about sexuality when their parents talk to them, dress them, show affection, and teach them the names of the parts of their bodies. As children grow into adolescence, they continue to receive messages about sexual behaviors, attitudes, and values from their families.

Young people also learn about sexuality from other sources such as friends, television, music, books, advertisements and the Internet. And, they frequently learn through planned opportunities in faith communities, community-based agencies, and schools.

What Are The Goals Of School-Based Sexuality Education?

The primary goal of school-based sexuality education is to help young people build a foundation as they mature into sexually healthy adults. School-based sexuality education should be designed to complement and augment the sexuality education children receive from their families, religious and community groups, and health care professionals. Such programs should respect the diversity of values and beliefs represented in the community.

Sexuality education should assist young people in understanding a positive view of sexuality, provide them with information and skills for taking care of their sexual health, and help them make sound decisions now and in the future.

Comprehensive sexuality education programs have four main goals:

  • to provide accurate information about human sexuality
  • to provide an opportunity for young people to develop and understand their values, attitudes, and insights about sexuality
  • to help young people develop relationships and interpersonal skills, and
  • to help young people exercise responsibility regarding sexual relationships, which includes addressing abstinence, pressures to become prematurely involved in sexual intercourse, and the use of contraception and other sexual health measures.

How Do School-Based Sexuality Education Programs Differ?

When discussing the sexuality education young people receive, many people refer to two distinct schools of thought: comprehensive sexuality education and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In reality, however, most schools in the United States teach programs that fall somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum and programs are often called by a variety of different names.

The following terms and definitions provide a basic understanding of the types of sexuality education programs that are currently offered in schools and communities. Remember, however, that names can be deceiving. It is important to look past labels and find out what young people in your community really are, or are not, learning in their sexuality education programs.

  • Comprehensive Sexuality Education : Sexuality education programs that start in kindergarten and continue through 12th grade. These programs include age-appropriate, medically accurate information on a broad set of topics related to sexuality including human development, relationships, decision-making, abstinence, contraception, and disease prevention. They provide students with opportunities for developing skills as well as learning information.
  • Abstinence-based : Programs that emphasize the benefits of abstinence. These programs also include information about sexual behavior other than intercourse as well as contraception and disease-prevention methods. These programs are also referred to as abstinence-plus or abstinence-centered.
  • Abstinence-only : Programs that emphasize abstinence from all sexual behaviors. These programs do not include information about contraception or disease-prevention methods.
  • Abstinence-only-until-marriage : Programs that emphasize abstinence from all sexual behaviors outside of marriage. If contraception or disease-prevention methods are discussed, these programs typically emphasize failure rates. In addition, they often present marriage as the only morally correct context for sexual activity.
  • Fear-based : Abstinence-only and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that are designed to control young people’s sexual behavior by instilling fear, shame, and guilt. These programs rely on negative messages about sexuality, distort information about condoms and STDs, and promote biases based on gender, sexual orientation, marriage, family structure, and pregnancy options.

Ideally, What Topics Are Included In Comprehensive Sexuality Education?

In 1991, SIECUS convened the National Guidelines Task Force, bringing together experts in the fields of adolescent development, sexuality, and education. The task force identified six key concept areas that should be part of any comprehensive sexuality education program: human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture.

The Task Force published the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: K–12, a framework designed to help educators and communities create new programs and evaluate existing curricula. Now in its third edition, the Guidelines provide age-appropriate messages about 39 topics related to sexuality for school-age young people.

What Are Students Learning In Today’s School-Based Sexuality Education?

The content of sexuality education varies depending on the community and the age of the students in the programs. Unfortunately, there is not enough research done each year to give us an accurate picture of what young people are and are not learning in sexuality education courses.

A recent study of health education programs conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of Adolescent and School Health, however, provides some insight into what is being taught in America’s classroom. The study found that 86 percent of all high schools taught about abstinence as a the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and STDs, 82 percent taught about risks associated with multiple partners, 77 percent taught about human development topics (such as reproductive anatomy and puberty), 79 percent taught about dating and relationships, 65 percent taught about condom efficacy, 69 percent taught about marriage and commitment, 48 percent taught about sexual identity and sexual orientation, and 39 percent taught students how to correctly use a condom.

In 2002, other researchers asked students what formal instruction they had received in sexuality education topics and found that one-third of teens had not received any formal instruction about contraception. More than 20 percent of both males and females reported receiving abstinence instruction without receiving instruction on birth control, and only 62 percent of sexually experienced female teens reported receiving instruction about contraception before they first had sex.

Parents and advocates who want to know exactly what is being taught in their schools should contact school administrators, their school board, or teachers.

What Does The Research Say About Comprehensive Sexuality Education?

Numerous studies and evaluations published in peer-reviewed literature have found that comprehensive education about sexuality—programs that teach teens about both abstinence and contraception/disease prevention—is an effective strategy to help young people delay their initiation of sexual intercourse.

Reviews of published evaluations of sexuality education, HIV-prevention, and adolescent pregnancy-prevention programs have consistently found that they:

  • do not encourage teens to start having sexual intercourse
  • do not increase the frequency with which teens have intercourse, and
  • do not increase the number of sexual partners teens have.

Instead these programs can:

  • delay the onset of intercourse
  • reduce the frequency of intercourse
  • reduce the number of sexual partners, and
  • increase condom or contraceptive use.

Who Decides What Young People Learn In Sexuality Education Classes?

Individuals and agencies at the federal, state, and local level—from state lawmakers to school board committees to classroom teachers—are all involved in the decisions that ultimately determine what young people learn in the classroom.

The federal government does not have a direct role in local sexuality education. Instead, it leaves such control to state and local bodies. However, because the federal government does control funding for many educational programs, it can influence programs in local schools and communities.

States are much more directly involved in decisions about sexuality education. States can mandate that sexuality education be taught, require schools to teach about STDs or HIV/AIDS, set state-wide guidelines for topics, choose curricula, and approve textbooks.

The majority of decisions about education policy, however, are made at the local level.

Whether or not there is a state course or content mandate in place, local administrators may establish their own mandates. These local mandates may expand upon but cannot violate state mandates. If a state mandates that schools provide information on contraception and STD prevention, a local community cannot choose to implement a solely abstinence-only- until-marriage program that does not contain this information. In contrast, if a state prohibits schools from providing contraception and STD prevention information in favor of an abstinence-only-until-marriage message, schools cannot choose to include that information in their programs.

On the local level, decisions are made by school boards, administrators, and teachers. Many districts have also created special advisory committees to review the materials used in school health and sexuality education courses. Most often these committees make recommendations to the school board which the board can either accept or reject. Teachers, clergy, public health officials, parents, and students often serve on such advisory committees.