Sexual education (sex ed) in public schools has long been a controversial and debated topic in society. There are several questions when it comes to approaching sex ed in schools. These questions include: appropriate age for introducing sex ed; should sex ed be mandatory or optional; and whether sex ed programs should be comprehensive or abstinence-based. Sex ed is a necessary subject to teach in schools. It should be appropriate to the grade level and taught in a knowledgeable, unbiased manner. Comprehensive sex ed should include teaching students about abstinence, prevention techniques, and should place an emphasis on helping students to acquire decision-making skills when it comes to sexual activity. Sex ed can be a very useful and efficient tool for young students when it comes to making the decision that is best for them. It is an unfortunate trend that not all young adolescents have a safe place to turn to for effective sexual information. Providing sex ed in schools gives all students an equal opportunity to get information about sex and all the aspects that come with it.
Age-Appropriate Sex Ed
Sex education should begin in early adolescents or sooner, possibly starting in 5th or 6th grade. “Sex education that works starts early, before young people reach puberty, and before they have developed established patterns of behavior” (Forrest & Kannabus, 2009, pg 3). If a child doesn’t get introduced to sex ed until age 16, but starts having sex at age 14; then it’s possible they didn’t learn anything about abstinence and STD or pregnancy prevention prior to their sexual activity. At which point it may be harder to teach them new behaviors concerning sexual activity. “In 2005, 6.2 percent of high school students reported having engaged in sexual intercourse before age 13” (Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS), 2007, n.p.). While 6.2 may seem like a small percent; 45.5% of young women and 45.7% of young men claim to have had sexual intercourse between the ages of 15 and 19. According to these statistics, it would appear that some sex ed would be appropriate at least prior to or at age 12. It is difficult to know at what age sex ed should be administered. It all depends on the physical, emotional, and mental development of the child. Some argue that introducing sex ed at such a young age will encourage young kids to experiment and act on their curiosity. However,
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According to 48 studies of comprehensive sex and STD/HIV education programs in US schools; there was found to be strong evidence that such programs did not increase sexual activity. Some of them reduced sexual activity, or increased rates of condom use or other contraceptives, or both (Forrest & Kannabus, 2009).
It appears to be evident that providing sexual education at a younger age, such as 5th or 6th grade, is not only necessary but appropriate as well.
Mandatory vs. Optional Sex Ed
Because all students deserve the opportunity to have equal access to sex ed; it should be mandated by all schools to teach comprehensive sexual education, with the option for parents opting their children out of class. During interviews conducted with parents of school aged children, by the author of this paper; it was found that all the parents also thought sex ed should be mandatory for schools to teach sex ed, and mandatory for schools to offer parents the choice of opting their children out of the programs. The parents also thought it necessary for schools to allow parents to review the information that would be taught to students prior to their children taking the course, this would give them the opportunity to pull their children out of the course. According to the Guttmacher Institute (2009), “21 states and the District of Columbia mandate that public schools teach sex education” (highlight 1). While 37 states require school districts to allow parental involvement in sex ed, only 3 states require parental consent for their child to participate in sex ed, and 35 states permit parents to opt their children out of sex ed (Guttmacher Institute, 2009, highlight 3). Only 4% of junior high students’ parents and 6% of high school student parents believe that sex education should not be taught in schools. Many school districts do however make exceptions for students that cannot participate due to religious beliefs and customs (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), 2007, n.d.).
Even though there seems to be little debate about the appropriate age to introduce sex ed and whether it should be mandatory or optional; there is a very big debate about the effectiveness of the two main programs being taught in public schools. These programs include comprehensive sexual education and abstinence-only programs, both of which have supporters and opponents.
Many abstinence-until-marriage or abstinence-based programs taught in schools are funded by the federal government. Billions of dollars have been poured into these programs, yet they have not been proven to be as effective as comprehensive programs nor have they shown a positive change in young students’ sexual activities (No More Money, 2008).
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Abstinence-only programs place an emphasis on abstinence from all sexual behaviors as a means to prevention of pregnancy and STD’s. These programs cover minimal information about contraceptives and STD prevention. If discussed at all, these programs only discuss failure rates (Community Action Kit, 2008). While many proponents of abstinence-only programs argue that the program is the only way for students to be 100% protected, opponents would argue that the programs don’t supply enough knowledge to students about other forms of protection and preventative measures. Students are more likely to engage in unprotected sexual activities when they have not been taught any information about prevention. Many abstinence-only programs also teach students about exercising self-control (No More Money, 2008). According to Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality (FACTS Handbook) (2000), “Students who do not choose to exercise self-control to remain abstinent are not likely to exercise self-control in the use of a contraceptive device” (p. 50). However, this is not a known fact since contraception as a preventative device is not taught in abstinent-only programs.
Abstinent-only programs do not prepare students for the possibility that they may not be able to exercise self-control. Educational Psychology by John W. Santrock highlights adolescent thinking, on page 314. Santrock notes that “in the heat of the moment, adolescents’ emotions may especially overwhelm their decision-making ability”. In the heat of the moment, a student who hasn’t been taught about contraception or condoms probably won’t make the right decision. However, an adolescent who has been supplied with adequate information about condoms and contraception might have already considered the consequences before-hand, during a moment not aroused by emotion. Having the knowledge to make the right decision concerning protection may help the young student to make a better choice during an emotionally aroused state.
The evidence and research clearly shows that abstinence-only programs do not prevent teen pregnancies or the onset of vaginal intercourse (Kohler, 2008).
Comprehensive sexual education (CSE) is an unbiased approach to sex ed. CSE teaches and develops decision-making skills in students about abstinence, contraceptives, STD prevention, condom use, teen pregnancy, human development and reproductive systems and relationships (Community Action Kit, 2008, pgId 886). Many parents argued that sexual education programs did not focus enough on teaching students responsible behavior and self-esteem associated with making decisions about sex. CSE provides that students be taught about relationships and interpersonal skills. This program also highlights the development of students’ attitudes towards their values and beliefs about sex and exercising responsibility regarding sexual relationships (Community Action Kit, 2008, pgId 888). Even though these programs have been proven to “delay the onset of intercourse; reduce the frequency of intercourse and the number of sexual partners; and increase condom or contraceptive use” (Community Action Kit, 2008, pgId887); only “15 states require that sex education programs cover contraception” (Guttmacher Institution, 2009, highlight 1.2). Even with its proven effectiveness and success rate, CSE is not being taught in enough schools to reach its max potential at reducing young students’ risky behavior concerning sexual activities.
Some critics argue that CSE programs increase sexual activity due simply to the students’ awareness of sexual information. While CSE may not primarily prevent sexual intercourse it is 50% more likely to prevent teen pregnancies than abstinence-only programs. It is also shown to marginally reduce reports of vaginal intercourse among young students (Kohler, 2008). CSE allows students to continually build upon development and learned skills. It also focuses on helping students to maintain these skills in memory, thinking and decision-making processes. For CSE to be successful, educators have to be dedicated in providing students with unbiased and effective sexual knowledge and information. There are many young adolescents in society’s communities that are just not provided with the adequate knowledge about sex ed necessary to make choices and decisions that are best for themselves and their futures. With the right tools and motivation teachers and educators could be very successful at preparing students for real life sexual encounters.
Parents in America strongly support a wide breadth of topics being taught as a part of sex education, and there is broad public support as well. 93% of junior high parents and 91% of high school parents support sex education as a part of school curriculum. 71% up to 100% of junior high and high school parents support topics such as HIV/AIDS, STD prevention, teen pregnancy, birth control, condom use, and sexual orientation as appropriate topics to discuss in sexual education programs (SIECUS, 2007). Even with these high numbers; it’s alarming to know that many states just don’t require it.
Many more states need to require that comprehensive sex education be offered in all schools, rather than no sex education or abstinence-only programs. They need to be mandatory programs with the option of opt outs. Programs should start at age-appropriate times such as 5th-6th grade, and each grade level provided with age-appropriate material to increase in intensity in higher grade levels. Only when this approach is taken will sexual education in schools see max potential and effective results. Effective results that just may change those 6% of opposing parents’ minds.