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Public Schools Need a Comprehensive Sex Ed Program

Updated on June 14, 2016

Children are the future, and teenagers are the immediate future. Teens are on the edge of adulthood and are known to take risks that leave adults figuratively scratching their heads in confusion. Recent studies have shown why: the teen brain is still developing. In his article, David Dobbs said, “…[B]etween our 12th and 25th years…the brain undergoes extensive remodeling…in a slow wave…from areas close to the brain stem…to the …more complicated thinking areas up front.” Because those “complicated thinking areas” are not fully developed, teens do not think ahead. According to Monica Luciana, in her article “Adolescent Brain Development in Normality and Psychopathology”:

…[T]he importance of the PFC [prefrontal cortex] for affective, as well as cognitive, regulation …explain[s] … that adolescents’ apparent executive failures occur only in some contexts, typically those with salient emotional demands…[T]he affective and cognitive neural systems work in parallel but compete with one another under conditions of high arousal…A decrease in sensitivity to loss or punishment sensitivity could lead to increased risk taking if the potential negative consequences of risks are not given the same weight as positive consequences. (1330-1331)

Teens do not consider the consequences of their actions in the same way that adults do. If they cannot clearly understand why a thing should not be done, they are more likely to do the thing they are not supposed to do, just to see what will happen. Teens need to be informed of exactly what their choices are and what the consequences of their actions could be. Lack of proper education about sexuality and sexual health could lead them to make choices that could have a life-long impact. Sex education should be brought back into public schools to cover comprehensive topics such as birth control, safe sex, and same-sex relationships. Teens have the right to fully understand their bodies, without guilt and without shame.

Studies show that teen pregnancy rates are lower now than in the past decades, but it is still a problem. J.A. Martin says that the live-birth rate is approximately 26.5 per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19. Sedgh states, “…[T]he U.S. teen pregnancy rate is substantially higher than in other western industrialized nations.” Pregnant teens are more likely to drop out of school, lessening their chances of finding work. This forces them into the welfare system, which costs taxpayers billions of dollars. (National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2013). The rates of STDs and STIs are alarmingly high. According to Alean Zeiler, “50 % of all STI cases are teens and young adults under the age of 25.” Surveys done by the CDC in 2013 showed that 47 % of the high school students they surveyed had already had sex, and a high percentage of them were not using condoms consistently. 22 % of those had never been tested for HIV. (Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, 2013). Many of the teens at risk are gay and lesbian teens. Emma Teitel says that they just don’t have enough information about safe-sex practices.

The argument for Abstinence-Only programs is centered on the fact that abstinence is the only 100% effective method of birth control. It is also an indisputable fact that those who practice total abstinence are almost certain to not contract STDs or STIs, nor will they spread them. Teens who practice abstinence are also known to have a higher self-esteem and seem to do better in school. (S.D. Lawrence, 2012). The question then becomes a “chicken and egg” scenario. Is it the early sexual activity causing the emotion issues? Or is it the emotional issues causing these teens to have sex?

Advocates for Abstinence-Only programs argue that teaching comprehensive sex education will cause teens to have more sex. They point to documented studies that they say prove these programs work. The problem is that what they point to as proof is misleading. Only one of the studies they cite was a peer-reviewed, scientific study. That was the 2001 study on Virginity Pledges. It showed that teens who took the pledge tended to wait until marriage before having sex. What Abstinence-Only advocates ignore is that the conclusion of this study says that these pledges are only effective in small, select groups. Bearman and Bruckner finished by stating, “…[S]uch pledges would not be effective for whole populations of students…” To answer the worry that comprehensive sex education leads to teens having more sex, the Emerging Answers study (Douglas Kirby, 2007) concluded:

[R]esearch clearly show that [comprehensive] education programs do not increase sexual activity – they do not hasten the onset of sexual activity, increase the frequency of sex, and do not increase the number of sexual partners. To the contrary, some…delay the onset of sex, reduce the frequency of sex, or reduce the number of sexual partners.

The federal government put $1.5 billion into the Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage program, from 1996-2009, after Title V Section 510 of the Social Security Act went into effect, according to Patrick Malone (2011). The Abstinence-Only program promotes abstinence as the only certain way to prevent pregnancy and STDs. It teaches many of the risks associated with STDs, STIs, and teen pregnancy. This program also stresses the bonding that occurs during sexual intercourse, because of the release of oxytocin and dopamine in the brain. Zieler says that severe depression is the result of severing this bond. Abstinence-Only programs stress the failure rate of condoms and other forms of contraceptives. They say there is no need to teach about using or obtaining condoms, because “chastity obviates the need for condoms.” (Zieler) All of these are good points, but studies have shown that these programs are ineffective.

Some abstinence-only programs contain medically inaccurate information:

“AIDS can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact.” (Reasonable Reasons to Wait, Teacher’s

Guide, Unit 5, pg. 19). In truth, HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be transmitted only

through direct exchange of bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, or breast milk.

“Cervical cancer is positively correlated with promiscuous behavior and kills

approximately 5,000 women a year.” (RRTW, Student Workbook, p. 119)

“Condoms are hailed today as the answer to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unwanted pregnancies. The facts are, however, that condoms don’t always prevent pregnancy and are ineffective against some of the most common, and most serious, STDs, such as human papilloma virus.” (Game Plan, Student Workbook, p. 36) In fact, the most recent research available suggests that young women who use condoms are 70% less likely to contract HPV.

Statistics show that the states that allow Abstinence-Only programs are the states with the highest rates of teen pregnancies and teens with STDs. The states that allow fully comprehensive programs have the lowest rates of teen pregnancies and teen STD cases. (The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2013).

Patrick Malone discussed the two studies that were done in 2007, to discover which program was more effective. The first study, “Impacts of Four Title V Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs”, was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. It compared students who had gone through the abstinence program to students who had not gone through any sex education, at all. The study showed no real difference in numbers between the two groups. Both groups began having sex at around the same age, had nearly the same number of sex partners, and had the same rate of unprotected sex. The researchers concluded that there was “no proof that the students remained abstinent or returned to abstinence.”

The second study Malone mentions was “Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases”. (Mentioned earlier in this paper.) It was conducted by Douglas Kirby, PhD. This study compared students who took the comprehensive sex educations program to students who took the abstinence-only program. This study found that 40 % of the comprehensive programs achieved the three important effects: “delaying the onset of sexual activity, reducing the number of sex partners, and increasing the use of protection.” Kirby’s conclusion was that “abstinence-only programs have no real effect.”

According to these studies, the comprehensive programs shown to be the most effective were those that “encourage abstinence as the safest choice but also encourages young people who are having sex to always use condoms or other measures of contraception.” This should include teens in “nontraditional” relationships. It isn’t just young men and young women having sex with each other. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, and questioning teens are having sex, as well. These teens need to learn how to prevent the spread of STDs and STIs, too. Abstinence-only programs only teach about sex between men and women, ignoring the fact that not all couples are heterosexual. This places LGBTQ teens at a higher risk. They do not have enough information about safe-sex practices. Comprehensive programs include these teens, and teach them to accept themselves as they are.

Studies have shown that abstinence-only programs are not working. They never have worked. So why aren’t more people pushing for comprehensive programs? The fact is that many people are pushing for them. A New York poll in 2011 showed 87 % in favor of comprehensive sex education. (“NYCLU Study Shows Gaps, Inaccuracies and Bias in NY Sex Ed Instruction”, 2012) Students in Oakland, CA, joined Forward Together to push for comprehensive sex education in their schools. In 2012, Forward Together joined Advocates for Youth for help to press the “Real Education for Healthy Youth Act”, which would ensure comprehensive sex education programs in public schools. (“Sex Ed the City”) Many parents, nationwide, support comprehensive programs. But each state makes its own decision on which program to use in their schools. Teens do have the right to know their own bodies and how their bodies work. They have the right to medically accurate information to keep them safe. Anything else is unethical.

“Teens make up nearly 47 % of our population but are 100 % of our future…Leaving them to find their own way is like putting them alone in a car blindfolded with no brakes, steering wheel or GPS…Without our support, they very well could find themselves on a crash course.” (Lisa Jander, “Dating as if it Were Driver’s Ed”) Fully comprehensive sex education will give teens the information they need to make more rational decisions.

Works Cited

Arellano, Greg. "Abstinence-Only Sex Education Harmful to Health." University Wire. 26 Jun.

2015: n.p. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.

Bearman, P., H. Bruckner. “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse.”

American Journal of Sociology. January 2001; 106.4. 859-912.

Boston, Rob. "SECTS and Sex Ed." Church & State. 06 2013: 7-9. ProQuest Research

Library. Web. 10 Sep. 2015.

CDC. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2013. MMWR 2014; 63 (SS-4)

Chen, Grace. “Public Schools and Sex Education.” Public School Review. (2008) Rpt. in

Teenage Sexuality. Ed. Aart D. Stephens. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven, 2012. Print.

Opposing Views Ser.

Doan, Mai. "Sex Ed the City! Oakland Youth Advocate for Comprehensive Sex Education."

The Women's Health Activist. Jul 2013: 1-4. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 10 Sep.


Dobbs, David. “Risk Taking is a Positive Function of the Teenage Brain.” National Geographic.

218.4 (2011): 42-43, 48-49, 54-55, 59. Rpt. In Teens at Risk. Ed. Stephen P. Thompson.

Farmington Hills: Greenhaven, 2013. Print. Opposing Viewpoint Ser.

Duran, Maureen Gallagher. Reasonable Reasons to Wait. 2002-03. Distributed by A Choice in

Education, Chantilly, VA.

Jander, Lisa. "DATING AS IF IT WERE DRIVER'S ED." USA Today. 01 2015: 28-30.

ProQuest Research Library. Web. 10 Sep. 2015.

Lawrence, S.D. “Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Has Unexpected Benefit: Math Gains?” Educational News. 13 March 2012.

Luciana, Monica. “Adolescent Brain Development in Normality and Psychopathology.” Development and Psychopathology. 25.4. 1330-1331. Cambridge University Press. 2013. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 3 Oct. 2015.

Malone, Patrick, and Monica Rodriguez. “Comprehensive Sex Education Vs Abstinence-Only-

Until-Marriage Programs.” Human Rights Magazine. 38.2 (2011)

Martin, J. A., et al. “Birth: Final Data for 2013.” National Vital Statistic Report. 2015; 64.

National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Counting It Up: The Public

Costs of Teen Childbearing 2013. Washington DC; Author.

"NYCLU Study shows Gaps, Inaccuracies and Bias in NY Sex Ed Instruction." Targeted News

Service. Sep 12 2012. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 10 Sep. 2015.

Phelps, Scott, and Libby Gray. A.C. Green’s Game Plan. 2007. Distributed by Abstinence and Marriage Education Resources, Glenview, IL.

Sedgh, G., et al. “Adolescent Pregnancy, Birth, and Abortion Rates Across Countries, Levels and

Recent Trends.” J Adolescent Health, 2015; 56 (2): 223-30.

“Statement of the National Partnership for Women & Families.” House Committee on Oversight

and Government Reform. April 23, 2008. Rpt. in Teen Sexuality. Ed. Aart D. Stephens.

Farmington Hills: Greenhaven. 2012. Print. Opposing Viewpoints Ser.

Teitel, Emma. "We Need to Get into Bed with Modern Sex Ed." Maclean's. Jun 12 2013: 12.

ProQuest Research Library. Web. 10 Sep. 2015.

Zeiler, Alean, “Abstinence Education”, American College of Pediatrics, 2010: 1-4. Rpt. in Teens

at Risk. Ed. Stephen P. Thompson. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven, 2013. Print. Opposing

Viewpoints Ser.

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