Growing up in a Catholic school, I never received Sexual Education classes like most of my public school counterparts. Instead, abstinence, or no sexual encounters before marriage, was the only thing preached. While it never got into the “if you have sex, you’ll go to hell” mentality that you see a lot in movies, it did heavily push for us not to sex in order to be right with God. This included things like uniforms with a certain length of skirts for girls, no PDA anywhere in school, no provocative dancing at prom, etc. So, after leaving that environment three years ago and entering into college, where the rules are obviously thrown out of the window, I always had this question: Does teaching abstinence or sexual education (and therefore safe sex practices) decrease things like teenage pregnancy and STD’s, or is it all pointless and kids will have unprotected sex regardless?
Looking at our two hypotheses, we have both the null hypothesis (sexual education does not change teen pregnancy reporting and teenage STD’s), and the alternate hypothesis (sexual education does decrease the amount of pregnancy reporting and teenage STD’s). Interestingly enough, we know that a lot of conservative, Christian families believe sexual education actually increases pregnancy reports and teenage STD’s, so although it’s seemingly unlikely, a second alternate hypothesis based off of this idea.
Looking at this topic on Google scholar, I found a (somewhat) observational study done in 2002 based off none-married, heterosexual adolescents aged 15-19 years of age (note, I had to put in my PSU email and password in order to be able to view the entire study for free. You may have to do the same). This study was meant to occur after the student’s first sexual encounter, but also after sexual education (which by itself is supposed to be conducted before the average student has sex). Because you can’t control if kids have sex and don’t, you cannot feasibly do an experimental study. Likewise, you cannot observe these kids 24/7 to see if they’re having sex and if they’re using protection, as that is incredibly unethical and practically improbable. Therefore, this study had to be done using a questionnaire. This, however, can make it less trustworthy because adolescents won’t want to report their sexual activity, even anonymously. Therefore, you can argue the students’ input may be withholding information or even not reporting true findings to the researchers (which isn’t quite the file drawer problem but is very similar.
Seeing the results, students who receive either sexual education teaching safe sex were about 4.95% less likely to report a teenage pregnancy than those who didn’t receive any education. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these teenage pregnancies didn’t happen, but they were reported far less. In abstinence-only education, there was no difference in sexual encounters and teenage pregnancy compared to sexual education. However, both offered no decrease in STD diagnoses among adolescents when compared to those who received no education. Therefore, it can be argued that these students were not practicing safe sex at a high percentage (which significantly decreases STD rates), and students were just likely getting lucky with teenage pregnancies or reporting them less than actually occurred. As you can see from the reporting, however, teaching about safe sex had no increase on reports of sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, or STD’s. Therefore, we can rule out alternate hypothesis #2.
Looking at the conclusion, I would have to say that alternate hypothesis #1, or that having sexual education reduces the amount of STD’s and pregnancies, is partially correct. Although STD’s seemingly didn’t change, pregnancies significantly went down (likewise, reports of vaginal intercourse also decreased). And while that may not be the what alternate hypothesis #1 set out to do, we can see that it did have some effect, and because of that cannot be the null hypothesis. However, I doubt the results. Being that this is not an experimental study, you can argue that third party variables like race, class, education levels and many other things can change the results even if there is sexual education.
In the study, caucasian people made up 73% of the study, while African Americans only made up 18%. No other race was measured. Likewise, the study was done more in metropolitan areas than rural or suburban areas. Thankfully, income levels did end up averaging out to about equal due to the high amount of participants. But with all of these differences, you can see that there are some areas that don’t contribute to third party variables, and thus you can take the results with a grain of sand. The p-value of the study was less than .05, making a false positive unlikely. Therefore, you can say that the first alternate hypothesis was all but confirmed, but you should take the results with a grain of salt. Meta-analysis is needed, preferably with doing it with low-income, low education areas in order to get the full picture. But we can all agree, logically we should want our future children to have sexual education classes in the future before their first encounters.