Two Approaches to Sex Ed

The Guttmacher Institute is a research and policy organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States and globally. Last year, they released a very interesting report that summarizes research on the sources and types of sex education for American teens. It provides a very detailed overview with a focus on the teenager’s perspective. Here are some of the more important and curious findings.

This graph illustrates some interesting trends over the last several years. It turns out that fewer teenagers are learning about methods of birth control from formal sources, which can be defined as schools, youth centers, and other community groups. This trend makes sense in relation to the other part of the graph, which shows that the number of teenagers who do not receive any birth control information is increasing. Thus, fewer teenagers are learning about birth control in general, and less teens learn about the different methods of contraception. On the other hand, more teenagers are learning about saying no to sex.

These findings can be summarized by saying that in formal settings there is a shift from educating teens about birth control towards teaching them to say no to sex. These two different methods are often categorized as comprehensive approach and abstinence-only approach. Comprehensive sex education also includes abstinence as one of the options, but it also provides information about human sexuality, age of consent, availability of contraception and techniques to avoid STDs. Abstinence-only stresses the importance of abstaining from sexual activity until marriage and does not discuss sexuality or methods of contraception. Thus, in the recent years there has been a shift from comprehensive sex education to abstinence-only.

We can also see the emphasis on the abstinence approach in this graph.

This data illustrates a decrease in all areas of sex education in schools, which is a very significant finding in itself. However, if we look closer at the lines, we will see that the most often discussed topic in sexual education is abstinence. Meanwhile, methods of contraception and, more specifically, instructions on how to use a condom are the topics that get the least coverage. There is very little practical instruction, with currently only 35% schools teaching students how to correctly use a condom (Guttmacher).

This research lies in line with current policies considering sex education in schools. Currently, 24 states and District of Columbia mandate schools to teach some form of sexual education. A much larger number, 37 states, require that if sex education is taught, it must include abstinence. Twenty-six of them require that abstinence be emphasized as a better choice. Here, we once again see the abstinence-only approach trumping over comprehensive approach, with a larger number of states requiring to stress abstinence than the amount of states required to teach sex ed at all.

Now, we finally come upon the most interesting part of the report: the research exploring the effectiveness of sex education programs. Research suggests that strategies that “promote abstinence-only outside of marriage while withholding information about contraceptives do not stop or even delay sex” (Guttmacher). Moreover, there is evidence that suggests that abstinence-only education puts teenagers at an increased risk of STDs and unwanted pregnancy. This seems to make logical sense. If the programs are not delaying teenagers from having sex, they still engage in s exual activity but without any knowledge about birth control methods and STDs.

On the other hand, strong evidence suggests that comprehensive approaches to sex education help young people to delay sex and also to have healthy, responsible and mutually protective relationships when they do become sexually active. Many of these programs have resulted in “delayed sexual debut, reduced frequency of sex and number of sexual partners, increased condom or contraceptive use” (Guttmacher). Additionally, there hasn’t been a single study that linked providing young people with sexual and reproductive health information with increased sexual risk-taking behavior.

The research makes it quite clear: abstinence-only approach is quite ineffective in its primary goal of delaying sex until marriage. Quite the opposite, it increases the risk of negative sexual consequences, such as unwanted pregnancy and STDs because no information about those risks is provided. On the other hand, the comprehensive approach seems to carry few drawbacks, instead leading to healthier and more responsible sexual behavior. This is probably why leading health organizations support the comprehensive approach to educating young people about sex (Guttmacher). (Just to name a few: American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the Institute of Medicine, the American School Health Association and the Society for Adolescent Medicine.)

So, all this begs a question: why is there such a stark contrast between what research shows to be the better type of sexual education and what kind of sex ed is currently being taught in school?


“American Teens’ Sources of Sexual Health Education.” Guttmacher Institute. Guttmacher Institute, 27 Oct. 2016. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. <>.

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